A former St. James Parish government accountant says parish officials harassed and fired her in September because she testified nearly two years ago before a grand jury investigating malfeasance in office allegations against Parish President Timmy Roussel and two other officials.
Doris Brignac, who worked in the parish Finance Department, claims in a new federal wrongful termination lawsuit that her superiors threatened her against testifying truthfully the day before she was to appear before the grand jury on Sept. 27, 2016.
Roussel, his director of operations, Blaise Gravois; and Ashley Poche, assistant finance director, were indicted on malfeasance charges Sept. 28, 2016, a day after Brignac's testimony.
Roussel and Gravois have been accused of using public works employees and resources to do illegal improvements on private property, primarily in the run-up to Roussel's 2015 re-election bid. Poche is accused of excessive personal use of her work cellphone and using a parish fax machine for private work.
The cases against all three are pending in state district court. The three have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Shortly after Brignac's grand jury testimony, she claims, parish employees began warning her that Poche and Roussel were "were looking for ways to discipline and write her up because of her grand jury testimony" and noticed "an immediate change in the demeanor of Roussel, Poche, and (Finance Director Chantal) Waguespack."
"Roussel refused to speak to Brignac," the suit alleges, "and Waguespack and Poche, the heads of Brignac’s department, began a campaign of increased scrutiny, verbal criticism, and write-ups, culminating with her termination."
A nearly 11-year employee, Brignac was fired Sept. 20, 2017, the suit says. A little more than a year earlier, shortly before she became involved in the grand jury investigation, Brignac's superiors had thought enough of her that they had deemed her an "essential employee" in the Finance Department, according to court records.
Filed July 4 in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, Brignac's suit accuses parish officials of violating her First Amendment right to free speech to testify as a public employee "about a matter of public concern."
The U.S. Supreme Court has "clearly established that it was unlawful to retaliate and/or discriminate against a public employee such as Plaintiff for providing testimony pursuant to a subpoena and under oath," the suit alleges.
A copy of the suit, which had not been served to the parish yet, was provided to the parish Thursday. The suit names Roussel, Poche, Waguespack, Personnel Manager Jennifer Rizzuto and the parish government as defendants.
Among the suit's claims for relief, it is seeking punitive damages from Roussel and the other three individually named defendants.
Roussel declined to comment Thursday on the advice of Assistant District Attorney Cody Martin, the parish's legal adviser. Robert Landry III, Brignac's attorney, also declined to comment.
In her suit, Brignac recounts an emergency meeting that Waguespack called Sept. 26, 2016, the same day an investigator from the 23rd Judicial District Attorney's Office hand-delivered subpoenas to Brignac and other employees while they were at work.
Brignac alleges Waguespack told the Finance Department employees that they "were bound by an Executive Order" from Roussel on confidentiality and should not disclose any information about parish employees or risk discipline or even termination.
"Defendants called this meeting to dissuade, intimidate, and threaten Brignac and other employees regarding supplying truthful grand jury testimony," Brignac's suit alleges.
Among the last alleged retaliatory write-ups brought against Brignac after her testimony, she claims, is that she was suspended a day from work in June 2017 for using the phone at her desk 40 minutes per day and helping another employee with a spreadsheet.
Brignac claims the majority of her calls were work-related, yet other employees used their phones for personal calls and had not been disciplined, including Poche.
The indictment claims Poche made more than $700 worth of personal calls on her work cellphone.
Brignac added that before the indictment, she could assist other employees without being micromanaged.
Brignac has asked for a jury trial and, in addition to punitive damages, is seeking back pay and benefits, damages for pain and suffering and her legal fees and costs.
She is also asking that her personnel file be cleansed of retaliatory write-ups, that she be reinstated in her job and that parish employees be given training. The case has been assigned to 23rd District Judge Lance M. Africk.