The Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday deferred voting on a request that state law be changed to address an apparent discrepancy between the Louisiana code of evidence and the investigative powers the parish has granted to its Inspector General’s Office.
The precise nature of the discrepancy remains murky, but it apparently centers on whether communications typically shielded by attorney-client privilege lose their protection if they are requested and received by the inspector general during an investigation.
Ben Zahn, who is one of a few council members to express concern that the inspector general’s ability to access emails and other communications without running those requests through other governmental departments is too broad, sponsored the measure asking the parish’s legislative delegation to seek to amend the state’s code of evidence as it relates to attorney-client privilege.
He said the deferral came at the request of the parish’s Ethics and Compliance Commission, which oversees the Inspector General’s Office and is expected to draft a memorandum on the matter.
Zahn, who has at times been criticized by good-government groups for his position on how much access Inspector General David McClintock should have in his investigations, said the request is not intended to restrict the IG’s Office.
He said it is important to make sure the local ordinance governing the office is in sync with the state’s code of evidence.
The concern stems from an opinion provided to the parish last month by Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University. The contents of the opinion have not been made public, but Ciolino said subsequently that under state law, records obtained by the inspector general can end up improperly divulging strategy and other crucial details in cases unrelated to the inspector general’s work.
McClintock, who has said the powers granted to his office are fine as they are, said he could not comment on the request because he doesn’t know enough about it or its intent.
He said after a meeting last month, however, that his access to parish communications does not violate attorney-client privilege in part because he is part of parish government and thus covered by the same privilege.
He added that allowing an outside entity to determine what is or is not covered by the privilege could help officials currently under investigation figure out ways to hide incriminating documents.
On Wednesday, advocates for transparency in government once again expressed skepticism about anything that smells like an effort to meddle with the process.
Margaret Baird, chairwoman of Citizens for Good Government, said the inspector general’s current arrangement is standard and unremarkable when compared to other such offices around the country.
“Please let the inspector general do his job,” she told the council.
Parish President John Young has said he continues to support full and unfettered access for the Inspector General’s Office.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.