A Slidell man who sued a trucking company and its insurer over an accident that pushed his vehicle off the Interstate 10 twin spans into Lake Pontchartrain has filed complaints with the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel about two lawyers involved in his case, one of whom belongs to the firm that represents the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office and the other a top Sheriff’s Office aide who is running for district attorney.
John Hoogacker, who said he was badly injured in the Jan. 10, 2012, accident, hired Talley, Anthony, Hughes & Knight, a St. Tammany law firm that also handles legal work for the Sheriff’s Office, to represent him. But Hoogacker said Charles Hughes didn’t disclose the fact that he also does defense work for Travelers Insurance until after a mediation meeting between the two sides in Baton Rouge earlier this year — more than two years after the suit was filed.
At that point, Hoogacker said, he became uneasy about Hughes, and a few weeks later he recorded a meeting he had with him.
On the tape, according to Hoogacker, Hughes said that he sought to move the lawsuit from New Orleans, where the accident occurred, to St. Tammany Parish because of the city’s demographics — which Hoogacker said that Hughes described using racial slurs. Hoogacker declined to provide the tape to The New Orleans Advocate.
Hoogacker also said Hughes referred on the tape to Brian Trainor, the chief deputy for the Sheriff’s Office and now a leading candidate for district attorney, whom he had hired to assist with the case. Hughes allegedly claimed that Trainor had the ability to get a friend at the State Police who does private work in accident reconstruction to write a report that would be favorable to the case.
The Trainor campaign said late Wednesday that Trainor in fact commissioned two expert witnesses, and neither of them could attest to Hoogacker’s version of events. The campaign released a partial transcript of the Hoogacker tape that appeared to back up that claim; in it, Hughes mentions Trainor’s “personal relationship” with one of the officers hired to reconstruct the crash, but says it didn’t help.
“He 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 said, according to the transcript. “Nor was the other guy.”
Hughes did not return a call seeking comment. But he released a statement to WVUE-TV, which aired a portion of Hoogacker’s tape Wednesday night, in which he apologized for using slurs, calling his language “indefensible.”
The Trainor campaign, responding to written questions, strenuously denied the allegations made by Hoogacker, saying that a full transcript of the conversation would expose his untruthfulness.
“The abuse of our legal system for political gain is disgraceful,” Trainor said in a prepared statement. “Not once has my integrity or honesty ever been challenged. For the last 12 years, I’ve dedicated myself to public service. … I’ve always upheld myself to the highest ethical standards.”
The complaint contends that the lawyers didn’t act in Hoogacker’s best interest because of their ties to Travelers. Hoogacker said that during the mediation meeting, the lawyer representing the insurance company commented that it was unusual to see Hughes and Trainor on the opposite side of the table.
But the Trainor campaign said that his role as co-counsel in the lawsuit was limited and that he mainly assisted with accident re-creation. In addition, the campaign said, Trainor had never represented Travelers before, adding that the insurance company Hoogacker was suing is a separate entity from the Travelers company that the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office uses for insurance.
Trainor received notice that a complaint had been filed against him the day after qualifying in the district attorney’s race ended. The Trainor campaign points to that timing as evidence that the complaint is part of an effort to smear Trainor politically, further alleging that Hoogacker has ties to at least one of Trainor’s opponents.
Hoogacker confirmed that one of them, Alan Black, represented him in two cases in 2007 and 2009, but he denied any current connection.
He said he filed the complaints against Hughes and Trainor in early August and that they had nothing to do with the district attorney’s race.
This week, Hoogacker filed another complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, this one targeting Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino’s involvement with Trainor regarding the complaint. Hoogacker said he had sought counsel from Ciolino about his issues with Trainor and Hughes, and that Ciolino had failed to disclose he was representing Trainor.
“When you sent me Mr. Trainor’s response to my bar complaint against him, and I saw that Mr. Ciolino was representing Mr. Trainor and had filed the answer for Mr. Trainor, I was very upset,” Hoogacker wrote. “Mr. Ciolino’s actions do not seem any different from those of Mr. Hughes himself, who failed to tell me about his longtime relationship with the Travelers and St. Paul’s insurance companies,” he wrote.
Trainor contacted Ciolino immediately upon learning of the complaint, the campaign said, describing him as one of the region’s top ethics attorneys.
Ciolino confirmed Wednesday that he consulted with Trainor on the complaint. He said he has no recollection of talking to Hoogacker and no record of receiving a single email or document from him.
He was not aware of the complaint filed against him, he said.
“I can say that he (Hoogacker) made a meritless complaint against Mr. Trainor, and it would not surprise me if he made a meritless complaint against me or anyone else,” he said.
If the tape, as Hoogacker asserts, records Hughes using racial epithets, it would not mark the first time that people connected with the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office have been caught using racist language.
In May, a Slidell civil rights organizer made public a string of emails containing racist jokes and slurs that had been circulated to a group of law enforcement and parish officials by Capt. Bobby Juge. The Sheriff’s Office did not discipline Juge but simply said supervisors had talked to “the two employees who forwarded some of the content.” The other employee was not identified.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.