The Louisiana Supreme Court has turned away a bid by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration to overturn a judgment against the city for shortchanging Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Clerk Arthur Morrell’s office on payroll.
The 5-2 Supreme Court decision denying the city’s writ appears to seal victory for Morrell in a long-running feud with the mayor over control of the clerk’s staffing level and budget.
The $141,000 award that Civil District Court Judge Sidney Cates IV handed last year to Morrell’s office, upheld in March by an appeals court panel, applies only to the 2012 fiscal year, however. Still to be worked out is how much the city owes Morrell’s office under the same legal standard for subsequent years in which he alleges the city again failed to abide by a state statute requiring it to fully fund his office.
State law requires the city to adequately fund Morrell’s office and says the funding “shall not be reduced by the city ... without the consent of the Legislature.”
Morrell has argued that the statute requires the city to staff his office at its historic level of 90.5 employees.
Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin’s decision to cut Morrell’s funding by 3.8 percent as part of overall city budget reductions in 2012 ran afoul of that law, the courts found.
The city for years had balked at the idea of a blank check for Morrell, who accused Kopplin of refusing to authorize hiring people to fill more than a dozen open positions on his staff.
The adopted 2016 city budget funds Morrell’s office at $3.7 million, about $370,000 below his budget for 2012.
Madro Bandaries, an attorney for Morrell, declined to say how much the clerk thinks he’s owed for 2013-2016. “We hope to amicably conclude this matter,” Bandaries said.
A spokesman for the Landrieu administration did not respond to a request for comment on the Supreme Court’s rejection of the city’s position.
A March report from Legislative Auditor Darryl Purpera’s office found that Morrell had used his office’s credit card for more than $7,000 in personal expenses and that his office used $78,000 in public funds for celebrations, nonprofit donations, and gifts and meals for employees.
Morrell also used state reimbursements to improperly give extra pay to employees working on elections, the audit found. Morrell responded that most of the practices criticized in the audit were handled the same way before he took office in 2006.
He acknowledged some spending miscues, but said the parties funded by his office were aimed at building “the spirits and camaraderie of our employees” at a time when the city had failed to pony up for full staffing.
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