A 22nd Judicial District Court judge has clamped down on a legal file that St. Tammany Parish officials argue was misappropriated by Covington resident Terri Lewis Stevens, who has used information from the documents in her legal battle with the parish.
Judge Allison Penzato agreed with attorneys for the parish that a protective order should be put in place to compel the return of all copies of what the parish says was a litigation file.
Stevens, a persistent critic of the parish government, and her next-door neighbors filed a lawsuit in February, claiming that drainage problems on their properties stem from parish actions that amounted to public use of private property.
Stevens testified at a hearing Wednesday that a thumb drive with the parish documents on it was delivered to her by a parish employee, Irma Russell.
Russell, who also was called to the stand, said she found an envelope in the mailbox at her Slidell home, with handwritten instructions to give it to Stevens. Russell has since been fired from her job in the Code Enforcement Division.
Russell and Stevens both denied knowing who was responsible for creating the thumb drive with the leaked file. But Stevens said that while most of the drive contained random files, there were documents that she believes are public records pertinent to her lawsuit.
Asked who she thought was responsible for leaking the documents, she said, “I have no idea. But I am thankful.’’
The parish, which has hired outside counsel for the case, sought the protective order. Attorney James Bradford said the file was covered both by attorney-client privilege and as attorneys’ work product.
Bradford also asked the judge to order Stevens to turn over emails that indicate who else might have gotten the files from her.
Penzato limited Wednesday’s hearing to the question of the protective order, although the testimony from Russell was in connection with motions that will be taken up next month, including a contempt-of-court motion filed by the parish against Stevens.
Russell testified that she never opened the envelope and didn’t know what it contained. She also denied talking to Stevens about the contents of the envelope.
Bradford also called Stevens and her neighbors, Craig Rivera and Jennifer Fruchtnicht, to the stand, saying he needed their testimony to determine the scope of the disclosure.
The couple denied seeing the thumb drive or the documents it contained.
“I didn’t really know about it until very recently,’’ Fruchtnicht said. “I never had a copy. I’ve never seen it.’’
Stevens, however, testified that she read the documents and made a copy on her hard drive — a copy that she has since erased. She sent the documents to her father, who is a civil engineer, and another copy might have been sent to another engineer, she said.
According to the documents filed by Stevens and her neighbors, information in the file shows that the parish did not have a servitude on Stevens’ land and that no natural drainage feature existed there. Instead, the plaintiffs claim, the files show that the parish cut a drainage channel through the land in 1993.
Stevens also says the file contains emails showing that the documents were intentionally concealed.
She testified that she sent documents to the FBI, the state inspector general and to friends, although she said she couldn’t specify who.
Bradford asked whether she had sent documents to members of the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany and to local news media, and she said she might have done so.
The judge agreed that Stevens should turn over emails to show who might have received communications from her with attachments that came from the file.
Stevens turned the original thumb drive over to her lawyer, Jim Blazek, who gave it to Penzato in a sealed envelope.
Bradford told the judge that the parish wants to be able to examine the original thumb drive to determine how the data were taken and what computer might have been involved.
Penzato said the parish would have to be able to ensure that the integrity of the thumb drive would not be harmed.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.