Lea Anne Batson

East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson in 2018 file photo.

The city-parish has hired an outside law firm to respond to public records requests related to personnel matters within the East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney's Office as efforts ramp up to oust the department's top official. 

Tuesday's hiring of the Erlingson Banks law firm — for up to $17,500 — comes after The Advocate submitted several public records requests for documents from, to and concerning Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson, who learned last week that Metro Councilman LaMont Cole wants to begin proceedings that could lead to her firing. He would need seven votes from the 12-member council to start the process.

Cole has not said why he wants the Metro Council to remove Batson, who has been parish attorney since the council fired her predecessor in 2014. Cole intends to ask the Metro Council on Wednesday to set a public hearing to remove Batson.

If the item moves forward, that hearing will occur Jan. 23.

Hiring an outside legal team was "purely for reinforcing the integrity of the office," said Ashley Beck, administrator-treasurer for the Metro Council. "I want to remove any question or concerns about the way these requests are being handled in reference to the city-parish attorney's office."

Beck said having an outside agency review the records creates less of a conflict as opposed to having Batson's employees retrieve files that could be related to their boss's performance. 

Because the contract with Erlingson Banks doesn't exceed $17,500, it won't need council approval, she said. Erlingson Banks already handles any requests from the public for records related to the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office. 

The Parish Attorney's Office will still handle records requests not related to Batson or personnel matters within her office, Beck said. 

In an email Tuesday, attorney Mary Erlingson said her firm is gathering the documents The Advocate has requested and would respond "immediately" to discuss how they can be reviewed.

The Advocate submitted multiple requests for various records from the Parish Attorney's Office last week after the rest of the council and city-parish heads were notified Cole's item would be appearing on the agenda of Wednesday's council meeting.

Batson has 30 years' experience with the Parish Attorney’s Office. 

Several emails Batson wrote in December, which the newspaper obtained late last week, indicate she believes Cole wants to remove her because he's interested in appointing her first assistant, Tedrick Knightshead, in her place. 

Batson herself had been serving as the first assistant when she was appointed to the top job by the council.

Both Cole and Batson on Tuesday refused to comment on the matter.

Knightshead, who's expected to resign from Batson's No. 2 spot effective Jan. 31, said Tuesday he has not discussed anything about Batson, or stepping into her position, with Cole.

"There is no animosity between us," he said.   

In an Dec. 26 email Batson sent to someone whose name was redacted, she details her account of the circumstances surrounding Knightshead's decision to resign, claiming he refused to adhere to certain polices she implemented to address issues within the Parish Attorney's Office that were called into question when her predecessor, Mary Roper, was fired by the council in 2014. 

The issues council members cited back then involved parish attorneys spending more time working on cases through their private practices instead of handling city-parish legal matters. Some officials thought the outside work created conflicts of interest when they represented criminal defendants.  

"When I was interviewed, and subsequently appointed, I committed to eliminate the conflicts and strictly adhere to accountability with hours worked," Batson wrote in the Dec. 26 email. "Tedrick has refused to adhere to those policies so it was agreed that it would be better if he retired." 

But Knightshead maintained his previous statement that his decision to leave the Parish Attorney's Office was about his need to move on to something else after working there for 13 years.    

"This has nothing to do with me," Knightshead said Tuesday. "I think my resignation might have been the catalyst for the council to say, 'Why is he leaving? We really like him.' ”

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.