Henry “Junior” Rodriguez, the colorful 80-year-old former St. Bernard Parish president who came out of retirement last month to run for clerk of court, says he’s back to break the hold that a group of political allies has cemented on the parish courthouse.
That group, he says, consists of first-term clerk Randy Nunez and his two former law partners, Perry Nicosia and Lance Licciardi, who are now the parish’s district attorney and assistant district attorney, respectively.
Nunez, not surprisingly, dismisses the allegation.
“That’s an absurd statement,” he said in response to the charge that he and Nicosia constitute a political machine.
Nunez said he and Nicosia, who won office last year, campaigned as outsiders and haven’t been in office long enough to constitute much of a political force.
He said Rodriguez and his backers “are just not used to having a group of people in there who are not financially dependent on the job.”
Rodriguez, who lost a bid for a second term as St. Bernard president in 2007 after a long career in parish politics, said he is confident voters will see it his way.
“I’ve got a lot of people agreeing with what I’m saying,” he said. “We’ve had negative publicity with regard to our political situation, and we don’t need this. We need an independent in there. We don’t need one group in complete control.”
In addition to being lifelong friends and former law partners, Nunez, Nicosia and Licciardi were named in a 2012 civil lawsuit alleging they were part of a conspiracy to shake down out-of-state contractors doing debris removal work after Hurricane Katrina.
The suit was thrown out by a federal judge who ruled in March that the statute of limitations had passed. Nicosia has said he did nothing wrong and that the addition of his name to the lawsuit in 2014 was politically motivated. Nunez called the accusation in the case, which has been appealed, without merit.
“It’s a frivolous, baseless lawsuit, and it always has been,” he said.
Rodriguez’s name also came up in the suit, when the contractors who filed it alleged that Nunez, Nicosia and Licciardi told them that Rodriguez, then the parish president, was requesting the kickbacks.
Rodriguez also denies having any role, saying his name was used without his knowledge or consent.
“It ticked me off,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m running, really.”
Rodriguez garnered a national profile after Hurricane Katrina, when his colorful personality made him a popular interview subject. He’s known for goosing President George W. Bush with his walking cane while Bush was touring the area.
Nunez said he is running on his record of having fulfilled three campaign promises during his first term and is now adding a fourth.
He said the first pledge was fiscal responsibility, noting he reduced the office’s staff through attrition from about 30 employees down to 23, who he said are doing the same amount of work. The office, which has a budget of $1.7 million, is funded by the fees it collects.
The second promise was improving transparency by making sure records are available in the office and online, Nunez said. Those who don’t want to pay a flat rate for remote access can use one of four computers in the office for free.
He said all records since Hurricane Katrina have been scanned, with land records online going back to the 1990s, criminal records post-Katrina and civil records since the late 1990s.
Third, Nunez said, was making the office user-friendly.
“You walk in the door, you for sure can have one person say they can help you, and maybe even two or three,” he said.
Beyond continuing to keep those promises during a second term, Nunez said, his next focus will be on getting back the 4 million pages of records that were moved to Lacombe after Katrina’s floodwaters caused them to mold.
They are kept in a privately owned storage facility, with the cost historically paid by the parish and the Clerk’s Office and reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Two years ago, however, FEMA said it would stop reimbursing those costs and the parish ceased paying them, as well, shifting the burden entirely on the Clerk’s Office, Nunez said.
He said he has sometimes personally gone to Lacombe to pull records, clad in a Tyvek suit and a mask. FEMA, he said, doesn’t want the records back in the courthouse for fear of contaminating the $14 million building, but Nunez said the current arrangement is not sustainable.
“My goal is to finally convince FEMA to allow us to digitize those records and get them into our database,” he said.
Rodriguez also has criticized Nunez for going to the parish for about $200,000 when the clerk of court’s temporary offices were damaged by Hurricane Isaac. “I’ve been in office for 32 years. We never had the clerk of court borrow money or any other department borrow money,” he said.
Nunez said his office and the parish were within their rights to have the parish put up the funds, which he said will be paid back by FEMA.
Rodriguez said he’s fully qualified to run the Clerk of Court’s Office, noting that the parish’s operating budget was about $50 million a year while he was parish president. Previously, he was on the Parish Council and, before that, the Police Jury.
“I have experience,” he said. “The Clerk of Court’s Office does not have that type of budget, and they don’t have that type of responsibility.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.