CONVENT — Prosecutors in St. James Parish are accusing a state district judge of bias in a malfeasance case against parish government's No. 2 administrator, Blaise Gravois, and want her thrown off the case.

In a 10-page motion filed Monday, prosecutors with 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin's office claim Judge Jessie LeBlanc has "failed to be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence in it," adding that her "words and actions" suggested "she was considering partisan interest, public clamor or fear of criticism.

"Judge LeBlanc … performed her duties with bias and prejudice and also by her words or conduct manifested bias or prejudice and that her impartiality is reasonably questioned," Assistant District Attorneys Charles "Chuck" Long and Robin O'Bannon wrote.

The motion was filed Monday just minutes before a hearing over whether to recuse those same prosecutors from the case and whether prosecutors should turn over grand jury records and other materials to Gravois' defense team.

"Is this a delay tactic, Mr. Long?" LeBlanc asked as the hearing opened.

Long said it wasn't and that prosecutors had been working over the weekend, despite his personal illness, to get the motion filed. 

LeBlanc took a recess to read the motion. Then she returned and initially decided to proceed before agreeing to halt the case. Judge Thomas Kliebert Jr. of the 23rd Judicial District Court was later selected hear the motion. 

LeBlanc, also of the 23rd JDC, last year issued a strongly worded ruling throwing out the indictment against Gravois and finding that one of Babin's assistant district attorneys, Bruce Mohon, who was also a former parish legal adviser, committed prosecutorial misconduct in the case, which has also ensnared Parish President Timmy Roussel. Mohon is no longer a prosecutor in LeBlanc's court.

With prosecutorial misconduct finding upheld, defense attorneys pursue grand jury testimony

Roussel and Gravois are accused of illegally using public employees and resources to do improvements on private property primarily in the months leading up to Roussel's re-election in 2015.

The 5th Louisiana Circuit Court of Appeal later reinstated Gravois' indictment but found prosecutorial misconduct did occur and sent the case back down for further proceedings. 

Prosecutors' motion Monday questions various findings and statements LeBlanc made in the April 2017 ruling to throw out Gravois' indictment and also questions, as improper, her statements during a lengthy hearing that led to the ruling.

The prosecutors have also pointed out that the husband of LeBlanc's administrative assistant has been working as an investigator in the Gravois case and could be a witness at trial.

Prosecutors did not say which side the investigator was working for or whether LeBlanc knew he was working on the case.

But they noted the judge has a standing policy that she will recuse herself whenever she or her employees have a professional or personal relationship with a witness or party before her court.

One example of bias, prosecutors claim, was LeBlanc's refusal to accept the allegations in the indictment and related charging documents as true, as she is required.

She refused to halt the hearing on the motion to throw out Gravois' indictment last year so prosecutors could file one of those documents, a bill of particulars, that would further explain their theory of the case.

She said the document, which she had ordered, "would be nothing more than a delay tactic" because of constitutional concerns raised by the charges in the indictment. 

Defense attorneys have argued the charges are a novel application of the malfeasance in office law to public works activities and so parish officials could not have known what they were doing was illegal.   

Amid initial debate Monday about how much time the judge has given prosecutors to respond to defense motions and whether the judge should have gotten some advance notice about the recusal motion, O'Bannon pointed out to LeBlanc that the criminal code doesn't allow her to proceed once a recusal motion is filed.

"Well, I am," LeBlanc shot back.

But she went on to say she felt she had given Long time to recover from the recent death of his father. She added that the allegations in the recusal motion were false, were things she was not aware of or were dealt by the 5th Circuit.

Matthew Chester, defense attorney for Gravois, said LeBlanc had taken "the words out of my mouth," saying the motion was a delay tactic without any evidence to support the allegations.

Yet, with District Attorney Babin's appellate attorneys watching and notification from prosecutors that they would appeal her decision to proceed, LeBlanc agreed to a stay and to send the recusal motion to another judge to decide.

Judge removes DA from malfeasance case against St. James Parish president

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.

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