The 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office has long served as legal counsel for St. Tammany Parish government, an arrangement ensconced in the parish’s home rule charter, but a charter review committee has targeted that relationship for change, and that’s causing some friction between parish officials and District Attorney Warren Montgomery.
Montgomery, who took office in January, has already shown that he’s rethinking the scope of his office’s Civil Division, which provides lawyers who advise numerous public boards and agencies. He has notified the St. Tammany Parish School Board and two public hospitals that his office will no longer provide their legal representation, for example.
But legal work for parish government has turned into a more complicated and divisive issue.
Montgomery, who appeared before the charter review committee last week, agrees that — based on the size of the parish and its government — Parish President Pat Brister’s administration should have its own attorney.
“I think we have reached the point where it’s worth her having her own attorney to handle the legal business of the parish, its departments and any agencies that report to the parish president,’’ he told the charter committee on Wednesday, adding that Brister, as a full-time executive, has the capacity to manage an attorney who would report directly to her.
But Montgomery sees the Parish Council as a different animal and is proposing that the DA’s Office continue to provide its legal representation. That idea seemed to be heading toward approval until the DA and the committee parted ways over a single word: “all.”
A proposed new section of the charter would spell out that the DA will serve as legal adviser for the Parish Council and the boards and agencies under it and “represent the aforementioned in all legal proceedings.’’
The charter committee balked at the word “all” because it would mean that the DA, and not the Parish Council, would make decisions on the hiring of any outside counsel.
The council now is represented by four assistant district attorneys: Terry Hand, Mike Sevante, Karlyn Riles and Bernard Smith. While all are paid with money from the council’s budget, three of them have received state warrants. The District Attorney’s Office gets 30 warrants, according to Montgomery, with 29 paying $45,000 and one paying $50,000.
But the council has hired outside counsel when it has deemed it necessary to do so. For example, it hired the firm Blue Williams last year to represent it in litigation over a proposed fracking well.
Council members Steve Stefancik and Richard Tanner, both of whom serve on the charter committee, said the council would never go along with ceding authority over hiring of outside attorneys to the DA. Any recommendations that the committee makes must be approved by the Parish Council before they can be put on the fall ballot.
The issue is one of control. The council wants to make its own decisions about whom it will hire, but Montgomery said that if the DA’s Office is to have responsibility for the Parish Council’s legal affairs, it should also have authority over hiring. He called that a basic tenet of management.
Montgomery has characterized the dissent as an “honest disagreement’’ with some members of the council.
The council is different from the administration in that there are 14 people on it, none of whom are full time and each of whom may have a distinct legal philosophy.
“You don’t have that with the parish president,’’ Montgomery said, adding that the dilution of management authority would make it difficult for the Parish Council to handle its legal business in the way that the parish president can.
The DA should be independent, he argued, but the competing agendas of 14 different members would make it difficult for an attorney representing the council to maintain that independence.
Montgomery said he is not trying to grab power but simply trying to do a good job.
Stefancik said he still believes that the council needs the ability to hire outside counsel for special cases, with or without the approval of the DA. When the current charter was written, he said, Houston C. “Hammy’’ Gascon, longtime DA Walter Reed’s first assistant, was on the panel, “and to some extent that was a power play.’’
Montgomery said that in this case, there is no power play from his side. “I am relinquishing power,’’ he said, alluding to his office’s withdrawing as the parish president’s legal counsel.
The administration has five attorneys: Kelly Rabalais and four lawyers who work under her — all of them officially assistant district attorneys, but all of them funded entirely by parish government.
Montgomery, who had met with Brister, Tanner and Stefancik earlier in the day to talk about the disagreement, did not prevail. The charter committee voted unanimously to recommend language that does not give the DA power over hiring of outside counsel.
Montgomery, who said during his campaign that he would abide by the outcome of the charter overhaul, said that while he is reducing some of the workload of his Civil Division, that will not result in staffing changes. The DA’s Office will continue to represent elected bodies in Washington Parish, he said. He also pointed to other state and parish bodies for which his office provides legal representation, including a new north shore levee board that was just created.
Two of the three bodies that he has retreated from representing stirred some controversy under the administration of his predecessor, Reed. In the case of St. Tammany Parish Hospital, Reed himself acted as legal adviser to the board, an arrangement that he characterized as being with his private practice. But his practice of sometimes sending an assistant district attorney to meetings he could not attend has drawn the attention of federal investigators.
One of Reed’s closest associates, Harry Pastuszek, had a lucrative deal representing the parish School Board, something that began as an arrangement with the DA’s Office until Reed suggested that the body hire Pastuszek’s private firm.
Staff writer Faimon A. Roberts III contributed to this report. Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter at @spagonesadvocat.