After a year, new north shore DA remains popular but faces some major issues _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery shares a laugh with his wife, Valarie Montgomery, during his swearing-in ceremony Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, at the St. Tammany Justice Center in Covington.

St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Warren Montgomery sued the parish government Monday, deepening a long-running rift over who controls the parish’s legal counsel.

The suit, filed Monday in 22nd Judicial District Court in Covington, is the culmination of a dispute between Montgomery and parish officials that began soon after Montgomery took office early last year.

He argues that his office is responsible for providing the St. Tammany president and Parish Council with legal representation, a position those officials reject.

Montgomery’s move drew a sharp reaction from parish leaders, including President Pat Brister and Councilmen Marty Dean and Richard Tanner.

“I am so totally disappointed that this lawsuit has been filed,” Brister said, “particularly since we have been working for months on a compromise.”

Tanner was more blunt.

“He just wasted our time and his people’s time,” Tanner said. “He probably has an attorney telling him what he wants to hear, which is that the charter says he’s supposed to run the whole parish.”

Montgomery’s suit accuses parish officials of knowingly violating the parish charter and state law by maintaining a legal department that is not under the authority of the district attorney. Attorneys in that department have technically been assistant district attorneys, but the district attorney himself has not been able to supervise them, the suit claims.

The suit also accuses the parish of unlawfully hiring attorneys who have never been designated as assistant district attorneys or taken an oath of office and of trying to create a legal department to “retroactively legitimize” those moves.

Parish leaders insist Montgomery is trying to overstep his role.

“There is not one piece of paper that comes across my desk that does not have a legal component to it,” Brister said. “He would have to do my entire job.”

If Montgomery wants to do that, he should “run for (parish president),” she added.

Dean said members of the Parish Council also see the suit as an attempt by the district attorney to insert himself into every nook and cranny of parish business. “The DA’s Office does not need to come and totally take over every legal aspect of the council and parish government,” he said.

Through a spokeswoman, Montgomery refused to comment, saying policy prevents him from discussing pending litigation.

It’s been apparent for months that the dispute could spill into court. In February, newly elected state Attorney General Jeff Landry refused to issue an opinion on whether steps taken by the council to establish its own legal department were a violation of the law. Landry said it was against his policy to issue opinions on matters that appear likely to be headed for litigation.

Montgomery informed Brister and Dean of his decision to sue in an hourlong meeting Monday morning, Dean said. The meeting was cordial “to the extent that you can have a friendly conversation about that,” he added.

The conflict first came into public view during the 2015 debate over proposed home rule charter amendments. Montgomery opposed one that would have removed the parish government’s legal counsel from his purview, which angered some council members.

In November, voters sided with Montgomery, soundly rejecting the proposed amendment. Since then, the two sides have been negotiating on how to divide up the legal duties.

As recently as early March, parish leaders thought they had an agreement. Under that plan, anything to do with litigation would have been handled by the District Attorney’s Office, and other functions would have fallen under parish authority, Brister said.

But Montgomery rejected that idea, presenting a proposed organization chart in which all parish attorneys would report to him except for one each for the president and council.

Now, both sides are dug in, and though parish officials said they would be amenable to keeping talks going, the possibility of a courtroom battle has grown significantly.

Tanner sounded a resolute note.

“As I told Warren, both sides lose this way,” Tanner said. “Something’s got to give, one way or another.”

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.