VACHERIE — District Attorney Ricky Babin has reminded St. James Parish Council that the Louisiana State Constitution gives him the sole authority to decide which criminal cases to prosecute, no matter what the council members may say.
Babin, whose three-parish 23rd Judicial District includes St. James, offered the lesson on the law in reaction to a proposed council resolution up for consideration at Wednesday night's meeting.
Though ultimately not adopted, the nonbinding resolution had requested Babin to end his malfeasance-in-office prosecution of parish Director of Operations Blaise Gravois in light of mounting legal costs for Gravois that could eventually be the parish's to pay.
Reading from a two-page letter Babin had handed to each council member moments beforehand, he said no resolution passed by the council would influence his prosecutorial decisions.
"You have no constitutional or statutory authority, charge or control over criminal jurisdiction," Babin said. "All pending criminal prosecutions in the 23rd Judicial District are under my sole charge and control, and I decide who, when and how cases are prosecuted."
Babin, who told the council he would take no questions afterward, read the letter moments after Councilman Ken Brass, the resolution's author, voluntarily withdrew it and after the full, seven-member council backed Brass in a roll-call vote.
It was not clear Wednesday night how much support Brass had for the resolution because the council was never asked to vote for its adoption.
Some council members pointed out later that they were not in favor, however. Embattled Council Chairman Alvin St. Pierre, who has taken criticism for his role in the lead-up to Roussel's and Gravois' indictment, said in a later interview he opposed the measure. He said he agreed to put Babin on the agenda to give him an opportunity to comment on Brass' resolution.
Gravois and Parish President Timmy Roussel are facing malfeasance-in-office prosecutions over allegations they directed public workers and resources to do work on private land in 2015 without having the parish get reimbursed.
A grand jury indicted both men in September, as well as a parish finance official over her alleged abuse of a parish cellphone. While Babin's office is prosecuting Gravois and the finance official, the Louisiana State Attorney General's Office is prosecuting Roussel.
But, in late April, a state district judge threw out Gravois' five-count indictment, citing prosecutorial misconduct before and after the indictment was handed up last year.
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Babin's office is appealing the ruling, but Gravois' attorneys showed up before the Parish Council earlier this month asking members to reimburse him for his attorneys' fees. He had already paid about $80,000 but had bills for another $24,000 with appeal costs still to come, according to the council resolution.
As Babin listened to Brass Wednesday night and waited to speak, he sat in the audience next to his two top prosecutors in the Gravois case, assistant district attorneys Robin O'Bannon and Chuck Long, and with Jeff Traylor, the assistant attorney general prosecuting Roussel.
Brass explained that his resolution was not intended to bring any negative light on Babin's office or the parish administration or further divide the council.
As parish councilmen, Brass said, "it is our responsibility to be stewards of the taxpayers' dollars."
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Brass would later learn from Chantal Waguespack, the parish director of finance, that the parish's insurer had the Gravois case under review to determine if his costs would be covered and, if so, under which annual policy.
The parish's deductible rose in March from $25,000 to $150,000 in part due to a protracted legal fight a few years ago over a petroleum tank farm once proposed in the Vacherie area.
In addition to Babin's reminder of his prosecutorial authority, the district attorney also repeated his office's advice that the council should hire a special counsel for advice on the criminal cases.
Babin said his office won't be giving advice on the cases involving Roussel and the other employees or any issues loosely tied to them, like Brass' resolution.
"Without the appropriate legal counsel to lawfully advise you, you place yourselves, the Parish Council and the Parish in jeopardy of violating laws of this State," Babin wrote.
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