Taxpayers in Plaquemines Parish should be incensed with their politicians for wasting money on a baseless smear campaign motivated by political revenge. The parish of fewer than 25,000 has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars the past couple years on lawsuits that never had a chance in court.
WWL-TV's David Hammer reports parish leaders filed four lawsuits targeting past associates of former parish president and current Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser. Two different judges quickly dismissed all four cases.
One of the lawsuits targeted Nungesser ally and former parish councilman Keith Hinkley. The parish alleged Hinkley used his position on the council to steer business to his roofing company. But Hinkley produced checks and invoices showing his company received no business from the parish while he sat on the council. Hinkley only received parish business before he was elected. 25th Judicial District Court Judge Kevin Conner threw out the case in April.
"This government and this administration and certain council members even right now, they're so adamant and there's such a hatred here," said Hinkley.
The lawsuit against Hinkley was so ridiculous Conner awarded him $83,000 to cover his legal fees and court costs. Shockingly, the parish has appealed Conner’s dismissal of the case. Hinkley believes the appeal will lead to a reimbursement of more than $100,000. That doesn't include $44,000 the parish will have to pay another defendant in the case to cover legal fees.
“The whole eight years I was on the council, I was very adamant that our family’s companies not do any work for this parish. Because I knew it wasn’t legal, it wasn’t right,” Hinkley said. “And then, all of a sudden, I get out of office and they’re going to fabricate all these lies?”
The parish also sued Logan Lott, son of Scott Lott, Nungesser’s director of operations from 2007 to 2014. The lawsuit alleged Lott used his father’s position with the parish to get free kitchen equipment for his bakery. But late last year, 25th Judicial District Court Judge Michael Clement dismissed the case. Lott showed WWL-TV all the receipts for each piece of equipment in his bakery. The station also confirmed with a major restaurant supplier that it received payment from Lott for equipment in his bakery.
The parish also sued Nungesser's former public works director, Byron Williams. The lawsuit accused Williams of arranging parish hauling jobs for his family’s trucking companies. But Clement dismissed that case in June, finding the parish had presented “no genuine issues of material fact.”
The lawsuit frenzy began in 2016 when Nungesser’s successor as parish president, Amos Cormier Jr., hired outside attorney Robert Barnett. Barnett drew up a lawsuit targeting Nungesser and two dozen of his allies. The lawsuit targeting Nungesser that alleged fraud was eventually dropped.
Later that year, Cormier died, but Barnett still filed four lawsuits targeting Nungesser allies with the approval of interim Parish President Ed Theriot and some on the council.
The Parish Council eventually ditched Barnett and handed the failed cases over to in-house attorneys. Barnett still defends his investigation leading to four failed lawsuits.
“I think the work that was done was of value to the public and if acted upon, not just by the local government, but by the state or feds, would be beneficial,” said Barnett.
But the main benefactor in all this seems to be Barnett. Public records show the parish paid the lawyer $338,000 over 22 months for work that included investigating claims of fraud and the filing of the four failed lawsuits. Add the $338,000 to the rising court-ordered funds the parish will pay wrongly accused defendants, and the expense of filing the vengeful lawsuits could go much higher.
Last year, Amos Cormier III, the son of the man who started all of this, was elected parish president. In an interview with WWL-TV, Cormier said he supported the lawsuits. Cormier's leading opponent, councilman Kirk Lepine, a Nungesser ally, called Barnett’s investigation a waste and a “witch hunt.” So did Nungesser.
In the end, Plaquemines Parish politicians got what they wanted by temporarily and unjustly soiling the reputation of Nungesser and his associates. And that's a shame. They also wasted a bunch of taxpayer dollars doing so.
Email Dan Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanFaganShow.