Timmy Roussel.jpeg

Timmy Roussel

CONVENT — Days from leaving office, departing St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a new round of malfeasance-in-office charges dating from 2015, while his attorneys argued their client's case needs to have a new judge randomly selected.

Judge Alvin Turner Jr., who was standing in for the state district court judge now assigned to Roussel's case, ordered a hearing Feb. 18 about whether to reallot the case.

Roussel and his top lieutenant, Blaise Gravois, have faced malfeasance charges for more than three years over allegations they directed illegal public work on private land in 2015 while Roussel faced a tough reelection bid.

The Louisiana 5th Circuit Court of Appeal threw out Roussel's six-count indictment in July after finding prosecutors broke grand jury secrecy rules in 2016, but prosecutors charged Roussel directly, outside the grand jury, on Dec. 11, leading to his arraignment Tuesday on six more counts of malfeasance.

The new round of charges over the same allegations has prompted claims from Roussel's defense attorneys of a political vendetta but also counterclaims from prosecutors that Roussel's attorneys have tried to bully their way out of the case before trial.

Roussel leaves office Monday when the runoff opponent he had defeated in 2015, Pete Dufresne, takes office. Roussel did not seek reelection.

Dufresne is new St. James Parish President

Roussel's attorneys argued in court papers filed Monday that Judge Jason Verdigets, of the 23rd Judicial District, was improperly reappointed to the case by the parish clerk of court after consultation with prosecutors and without the typical random selection.

While prosecutors can seek to have the same judge if they dismiss a case and a grand jury reindicts a defendant with largely the same counts, the defense attorneys argued that Roussel's case is different.

The 5th Circuit quashed Roussel's counts, and prosecutors charged him again through a different method, known as a bill of information, resulting in new charges. The defense attorneys argued the renaming of Verdigets amounted to forum shopping and deprived Roussel of his constitutional right to random selection of his judge.

Prosecutors had not had a chance to respond to the court papers by Tuesday. 

In court Tuesday, Brian Capitelli, one of Roussel's defense attorneys, told Turner that his client didn't want to go forward with the arraignment until the question over allotment is resolved, fearing that if Roussel entered his initial plea, he might give up his right to challenge the selection of Verdigets.

Assistant District Attorney Don Candell told Turner that prosecutors were facing a 30-day deadline to have Roussel arraigned.

After some discussion, prosecutors indicated they would likely oppose the defense attorneys' motion to reallot the case but would not raise Roussel's arraignment as a defense. 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.