Arthur Morrell, the clerk of Criminal District Court, arrived at the New Orleans City Council chamber on Thursday and planted himself before the dais.
The odd thing was, he was not scheduled to appear before the council, which has been taking presentations from one agency after another during its hearings on the 2015 budget. In fact, Morrell’s turn to present his budget came the previous week, but he stormed out after some back-and-forth with Council President Stacy Head.
Morrell insisted on presenting his budget for 2015 as if Mayor Mitch Landrieu were willing to fund his whole request. Head told him he would have to follow the usual format, outlining what his office would look like under the mayor’s proposal and then asking for more.
Then on Thursday, Morrell was back, unexpected but still determined to present his budget on his own terms.
For several awkward minutes, the whole thing resembled a game of chicken. As council members took their time getting to their seats, Morrell just sat.
One local official bet a reporter $20 the council would vote to boot him out and get on with the scheduled presentation from Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
The outcome proved somewhat anticlimactic.
Head finally told Morrell he would be allowed to make a 10-minute presentation, but she let him know she wasn’t happy about it.
“This was supposed to be the sheriff’s hearing,” she said.
“As you are an independently elected official and have taken up residence on our table,” she continued, “certainly I’m not going to challenge you and ask you not to present.”
And present he did, insisting again that the mayor and council are obligated under state law to fund his office’s entire budget request — a claim that Morrell and the city are still fighting about in court.
“All I’m asking is that you follow the law and fully fund my office,” Morrell said. “That’s the only reason why I’m here.”
His staff went through what he called the “CliffsNotes” version of his spending plan for next year.
It took just under 10 minutes.
Flood authority’s choice for attorney a surprise
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East will be getting legal advice — though not about its famous wetlands damage lawsuit against scores of energy companies — from a familiar name in New Orleans political circles, but one that at first glance seems like an unlikely fit for the board.
Nyka Scott, a lawyer who works in public policy for energy and dredging companies and who has been a campaign manager and confidante of New Orleans City Councilwoman Stacy Head, will serve as the authority’s general counsel, authority President Stephen Estopinal said Friday.
Scott will be the first full-time attorney working for the authority, which has gained widespread attention over the past year for its suit accusing oil and gas companies of destroying coastal wetlands.
Commissioner Joe Hassinger pushed for the authority to look at its arrangement with its attorney, Bob LaCour, at a meeting earlier this year. LaCour works on a contract and is not a full-time employee of the authority.
Hassinger, who opposes the wetlands suit, and Estopinal, who supports it, were on the committee that selected Scott for the job.
Hiring Scott full time will save the authority money compared with LaCour’s contract, Estopinal said. The details of Scott’s salary and the yearly cost of LaCour’s contract were not available Friday.
Scott has been working for the high-profile law Baton Rouge-based law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz. The firm is representing two of the defendants in the authority’s lawsuit, ExxonMobil and Cox Operating LLC, though Scott is not listed as an attorney for either of those clients.
During her time at the firm, she represented energy companies in front of regulatory agencies and worked for dredging and offshore supply companies, according to a news release announcing her hiring.
“None of the work she’s doing (for the authority) is going to be related to the lawsuit or any of those issues,” Estopinal said. “She has wide experience, and that really is a benefit, but she’s certainly not going to be involved in the lawsuit or any decisions in that regard.”
In addition, Scott chairs the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority, which is charged with overseeing properties — including Lakefront Airport — that had been acquired by the Orleans Levee District before it was absorbed into the Flood Protection Authority in 2008. The two authorities have frequently been at odds over funding issues.
Hassinger was the chairman of the Non-Flood Protection Authority before being appointed to the Flood Protection Authority.
“You can’t swing a dead cat in New Orleans without hitting an attorney who has experience with the oil industry,” Estopinal said.
Alleged false report has political overtones
Authorities in Plaquemines Parish have accused a Belle Chasse woman of filing a false police report after she allegedly embellished her version of an exchange she had with a Parish Council candidate to include an allegation of unauthorized entry into her home.
Cmdr. Eric Becnel, spokesman for the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office, said Michelle Wilcox, 47, told investigators that District 4 candidate Shelly Chiappetta came into her home uninvited on Nov. 2 and confronted her about a Facebook post Wilcox had made earlier.
But after reviewing video surveillance footage from cameras at Wilcox’s house and an audio recording Chiappetta made on a phone she was carrying in her pocket, investigators determined Chiappetta had knocked and stepped back and that the door opened while she had her hands in her pockets.
Wilcox was issued a summons for criminal mischief.
According to the arrest report, Chiappetta entered Wilcox’s house at 9 p.m. and was there for eight minutes before leaving. Other than being asked to keep her voice down because of a sleeping child, the confrontation was unremarkable, the report indicates.
Becnel said Wilcox also recorded the exchange on her phone, though that recording began after Chiappetta entered the house.
The police report said only that the offending Facebook post was on a story from nola.com. No further details were available.
Chiappetta is facing Irvin Juneau Jr. in a Dec. 6 runoff.
Becnel said Sheriff Lonnie Greco decided to issue a news release announcing Wilcox’s arrest, which is a misdemeanor citation, because the rumor mill had begun churning about the incident and because the crime Chiappetta was accused by Wilcox of committing is a felony.
“We wanted to set the record straight on it,” he said. “She was accusing a political candidate of a felony crime.”
Becnel said neither candidate is tied to the Sheriff’s Office, though he noted Juneau was a deputy decades ago. He said Greco is not endorsing anyone in the race.
Becnel said that if it weren’t for the recordings proving her innocence, deputies would have had to arrest Chiappetta, which could have been very damaging to her professionally and politically.
“If anybody is considering filing a false police report in Plaquemines Parish, you’re going to be arrested and dealt with in accordance with the law,” he said.
If the charge of criminal mischief is accepted by the District Attorney’s Office and Wilcox is convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Compiled by Jim Mustian, Jeff Adelson and Chad Calder.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on June 22, 2015, to reflect that Michelle Wilcox was not booked into custody; rather, she was issued a summons.