CONVENT — A state district judge has ordered that 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin's office must step down from a more than year-old malfeasance in office prosecution against St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel.
Roussel's defense attorneys ticked off a litany instances they saw as posing conflicts, claiming Babin and some of his assistant district attorneys were “immersed” in the facts of the case to the point they could be called as witnesses at trial and alleging some prosecutors bullied witnesses.
Reversing his decision last year denying the recusal of Babin’s office, Judge Jason Verdigets on Monday cited a Dec. 13 appellate ruling that found prosecutorial misconduct in a parallel case against Roussel’s director of operations, Blaise Gravois.
The three-judge panel of the state's 5th Circuit Court of Appeal found Assistant District Attorney Bruce Mohon had a conflict of interest by also representing parish government during the grand jury investigation and later providing legal advice related to one of the subsequent criminal charges.
One of the counts against Gravois and Roussel involves a parish-built gas line for the Millennium Galvanizing plant near Convent that prosecutors say the parish wasn’t paid for. Around the time of the late September 2016 indictments, Mohon, who says he was not part of the grand jury investigation, advised a parish councilman not to accept Millennium’s payment for the line until the cost could be verified.
The grand jury has charged Gravois separately, but over essentially the same allegations as those against Roussel — that he directed parish workers to provide illegal free work to private landowners. Both men dispute the charges and say prosecutors are trumping up, for political reasons, what was usually legal public works.
Assistant Attorney General Jeff Traylor was already the lead attorney in Roussel’s case, but with the recusal Monday, Traylor now loses the assistance of the District Attorney’s Office that has been involved in the case since its start in early 2016 and is still prosecuting Gravois, despite the appellate court's finding of prosecutorial misconduct.
In court papers, Roussel’s attorneys took issue with Assistant District Attorneys Chuck Long and Robin O’Bannon’s alleged attempts to badger Marty Kulinski, an employee with Millennium Galvanizing, to accept the prosecution’s theory of the case during an April 2017 interview. The defense attorneys filed a transcript of the interview with the motion.
Defense attorney Ralph Capitelli charged in court Monday that these prosecutorial tactics showed a personal interest in the case, saying Kulinski was “being bullied by (Ricky) Babin and his band of bullies.”
As Gravois’ attorneys have done before, Roussel’s lawyers also raised Monday that both Long and Mohon benefited from free parish work on their separate properties in 2015. Long has said the work on his property was legal in an attempt to resolve a parish-created access problem, but that has led defense attorneys to ask why the conduct Roussel and Gravois are charged with is illegal.
Roussel’s lawyers had subpoenaed both men to testify Monday about that work, but Verdigets quashed the subpoenas.
Capitelli also briefly revisited on Monday a 2016 budgetary dispute between Roussel and Babin over Mohon’s pay as legal counsel to both the parish president and the parish council that has figured repeatedly in the case. The district attorney had claimed in a letter to the Parish Council that Roussel’s refusal to pay Mohon fully was a political “vendetta” over the 2015 parish president campaign.
“We didn’t say that. (Babin) said that,” Capitelli told Verdigets.
O’Bannon, on the other hand, said the defense attorneys are raising the work that Long received legally as a “red herring” to distract from the case, noting the department that did the work for Long was overseen by the parish president. She also said it is up to the Parish Council, not Roussel, to set Mohon’s pay as the parish legal adviser, and that it was the council to whom Babin directed his letter.
She also said Roussel’s defense attorneys were misreading the 5th Circuit’s ruling on the conflict of interest, asserting the ruling was based in part on errors in the court minutes that incorrectly showed Mohon was present during criminal proceedings involving Gravois.
Traylor, the assistant attorney general, is seeking a court order to have the parish Clerk of Court change the minutes to no longer reflect that Mohon was present for the hearings. The Louisiana Supreme Court recently denied prosecutors’ appeal of the 5th Circuit ruling.
Before Verdigets’ ruling recusing the District Attorney’s Office, defense attorney Brian Capitelli, working the case with his father, Ralph Capitelli, was complaining about missing investigative reports when Long disclosed that prosecutors had reached immunity deals with some witnesses in Roussel’s case. Long did not say who they were or how many had taken those deals.
The attorneys also on Monday pushed off hearing separate motions to throw out Roussel’s indictment until 2 p.m. June 18, which also likely means his trial date in June will have to be moved back as well.