A pair of longtime attorneys for St. Tammany Parish government were shown the door this week, fired by 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery and escorted away from their office in a move that drew a sharp rebuke from Michele Blanchard, the Parish Council chairwoman.
The firings of Michael A. Sevante, who was considered the lead attorney for the council, and Bernard Smith came less than four months after the Louisiana Supreme Court handed Montgomery the victory in a power struggle over who controls legal representation for the parish.
Montgomery filed a lawsuit in April 2016 after months of wrangling over rival interpretations of the parish's home rule charter. He claimed the charter makes the district attorney responsible for the parish's legal representation, while parish officials argued that they had the authority to maintain an independent legal department.
Montgomery prevailed, and on July 12, he swore in the existing staff of attorneys for the parish administration and council as his newest assistant district attorneys.
Among them was Sevante, 53, who was first hired as an attorney for the parish government in 2000.
He said Montgomery gave them no new marching orders and scant details on plans to shake up the parish's legal work. However, those plans came into better focus Wednesday afternoon, when Sevante and Smith were called in separately and fired.
Present in the room were Cary Menard, head of the district attorney’s Civil Division; Chief of Administration Tony Sanders; and three others.
“I said, ‘Uh-oh, what did I do?’ ” Sevante said by phone Friday. “They said, 'You did nothing wrong. This is not for cause, but we’re going to have to terminate you.' I was asked for my badge, my office keys. I was allowed to take whatever I brought to work that morning and was escorted out of the building.”
Sevante said he and Smith met afterward for coffee at a McDonald’s.
“We were disturbed by the way it was done,” with no chance to hand off their work to other attorneys, he said.
“Obviously, we didn’t see it coming. St. Tammany’s my home. It’s my community, and I hope to have an opportunity to continue serving it in some capacity somewhere,” Sevante said.
Montgomery issued a statement about the terminations.
“Since my office took the reins of the Civil Division, pursuant to the Supreme Court decision, we have saved the taxpayers of St. Tammany Parish a little over one-half million dollars in payroll on an annual basis,” the statement read. “The process included streamlining, eliminating and realigning positions. We will continue to look for efficiencies to reduce future costs.”
Sevante’s firing, though, upset Blanchard. She sent a terse letter to Montgomery late Thursday, saying the move threatened to stymie several projects Sevante led, including the drafting of a fire hydrant ordinance and his work with several commissions and boards.
Sevante’s experience “is irreplaceable,” Blanchard wrote. “You have failed to train any attorney that is capable at this moment of taking over his work load and who has the ability to immediately respond to numerous pending issues/matters.”
A spokeswoman for Montgomery declined to say whether the district attorney planned to fill the two lawyers' positions. The spokeswoman, Lisa Page, also declined to comment on Blanchard's letter.
Blanchard said Friday that the two lawyers' positions were funded through the end of the year. "There was no reason they needed to be let go in this particular manner at this time," she said.
A spokesman for Parish President Pat Brister, who sparred with Montgomery in the legal dispute over control of the parish attorneys, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.