A prominent St. Tammany Parish lawyer who handles legal work for the Sheriff’s Office spouted racial slurs in explaining why he filed a personal-injury suit on the north shore rather than in New Orleans — an outburst that his unhappy client recorded and is using in a complaint he filed against the lawyer, Charles Hughes.
“That is a decision I made early on, to file it in St. Tammany instead of New Orleans, because guess what? New Orleans is n*****s,” Hughes says to the client, John Hoogacker, in an April 21 conversation that Hoogacker recorded. “You’re white. You go round there, they say ‘f*** you.’ That’s why.”
Hoogacker has filed a complaint with the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel against his former attorney and Brian Trainor, chief deputy for the Sheriff’s Office and a candidate for district attorney in the Nov. 4 election who was hired by Hughes to serve as co-counsel in the case.
The Slidell man argues that his lawsuit — filed against a trucking company and its insurer — would have been more successful if it had been filed in New Orleans, where the accident with an 18-wheeler occurred.
The case was settled through mediation for $350,000. Hoogacker’s share was $187,500, but he is still questioning whether Hughes acted in his best interest or in that of the defendant’s insurer, Travelers Casualty and Surety Co.
State law says an action for recovery of damages may be brought where the wrongful conduct occurred or where damages were sustained, but there are exceptions that can allow a lawyer to choose another venue. It’s not clear why the suit was filed in St. Tammany.
Hughes frequently does defense work for a Travelers insurance company that insures the Sheriff’s Office. However, although they share a name, the two Travelers affiliates are different companies owned by different groups, a Trainor campaign spokesman said.
Trainor was not present during the meeting between Hughes and Hoogacker.
Hughes apologized for his comments in a statement provided to WVUE-TV, which first aired the audiotaped remarks on Wednesday.
St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain issued a public statement critical of what he described as Hughes’ racially offensive language. But he also sought to downplay its importance, noting that the epithets were used in a private meeting with a client on a matter unrelated to Sheriff’s Office business.
“I do not in any way condone the language he used, and I have personally expressed to him my disappointment,” Strain said.
Hughes has handled legal work for the Sheriff’s Office for about 18 years, according to office spokesman George Bonnett, and Strain said he has no “current intention” of altering that arrangement.
“I will not allow a story, being promoted by certain campaigns with political motivations, to influence how I run this agency. If necessary, this matter will be reconsidered when the negative atmosphere of our current DA’s race has cleared,” he said.
Strain has been a vocal supporter of Trainor’s candidacy.
While no one disputes that Hughes’ use of racial epithets was wrong, a review of the tape shows that his recorded comments about Trainor don’t line up with how Hoogacker has described them.
In a complaint about both lawyers that Hoogacker sent to state Commissioner of Insurance James Donelon this week, he wrote that Hughes “told me that Mr. Trainor had state police officers who would say whatever we needed said to help us win the case. That statement by Mr. Hughes is on the tape and transcript.”
In fact, Hughes says on the recording that Trainor is a friend of an expert on accident re-creation who worked for State Police Troop L and whom he hired to reconstruct the accident. However, Hughes says, the expert’s findings were not helpful to Hoogacker’s case.
“He (Trainor) went to school with him and knew him, and in the blink of an eye, we need a good report here, and he wasn’t able to give us one,” Hughes says on the recording.
Hughes also says on the tape that a second expert contacted by Trainor was likewise unable to provide a report that could be used to bolster the case in court — part of his explanation to the client about his poor prospects at a trial and the rationale for going to mediation.
Hughes tells Hoogacker that he contacted several lawyers, including Trainor, to see what they thought about the case’s chances.
“They said, ‘You want to go to trial? Without expert witnesses?’ One of them said, ‘You’re a f****** idiot. If you go to trial, you don’t have any eyewitnesses, and you won’t have any expert witnesses,’ ” Hughes explains to Hoogacker.
The Trainor campaign has suggested that Hoogacker’s complaints, filed amid a hotly contested election campaign, are politically motivated. The Trainor camp said other candidates for district attorney have connections to Hoogacker.
Candidate Alan Black has represented Hoogacker in previous cases.
The Trainor camp’s comments prompted Black to make his own accusations of political dirty tricks. In a prepared statement, he said he was commenting only because his name had been wrongfully brought into the matter.
“I represented John Hoogacker on two occasions several years ago in unrelated legal cases referred to me by Mr. Charles Hughes. The cases were promptly and successfully concluded,” he said in a written statement.
“The real disgrace is Mr. Trainor, who is trying to involve me in his personal legal issues with which I have had no involvement. Obviously, involving me was an attempted political diversion. This tactic shows a lack of integrity.”
Candidates Roy Burns and Warren Montgomery issued statements decrying Trainor’s involvement in what they characterized as a questionable civil suit with potential conflicts of interest.
According to the Trainor campaign, Trainor’s role in the case was limited to accident re-creation and getting a continuance for a traffic ticket until the case was settled.
His fee for the work was $12,258.
Trainor’s legal practice is small; he handles perhaps 10 to 12 cases a year, many on a pro-bono basis, a campaign spokesman said. The Hoogacker suit was the only one he handled that involved Travelers, and it was the only time Trainor was hired by Hughes, the campaign said.
Trainor has said he will not have a private law practice if he is elected district attorney.
Strain’s office provided a copy of its off-duty employment policy, which says deputies must seek permission in writing to work off-duty and must get the approval of the sheriff or his designee. The outside employment can’t make a deputy unavailable during an emergency or make him mentally or physically unable to perform his duties, among other requirements.
Trainor’s legal work met all of those standards, Strain’s office said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.
This story was altered on Oct. 18 to clarify the fact that Brian Trainor was not at the meeting between Charles Hughes and John Hoogacker.