Grandstanding AG Landry loses public records case

Graft, Lies & Politics: A Monument to Corruption.

Taxpayers are real losers for having to pay his legal fees

January 10, 2018 by Tom Aswell (Louisiana Voice)

Until judges begin holding public officials personally liable—and making it hurt—for their continued disregard of Louisiana’s public records law, there’s simply little incentive to get them to change their habit of attempt to conceal information that could prove embarrassing or even incriminating.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who is on record via his own press release, as saying he was committed “to continue diligent enforcement of our Open Meetings Law,” recently attempted to deny access to public records to an Indiana woman on the shaky argument that as a non-citizen of Louisiana, she was not entitled to the records—never mind the fact he had already turned over 6000 pages of records to her and never mind that the state’s open meetings and public records laws go hand in hand to the public’s right to know what public officials are up to.

Apparently, she was starting to make him a bit uncomfortable so he cut her off and she FILED SUIT in an attempt to get the information she sought.

On Thursday, State District Judge William Morvant, thoroughly pissed at both sides over the numerous—and voluminous—filings in connection with an otherwise cut and dried matter, delivered a smack-down to Landry by refusing to dismiss Scarlett Martin’s suit.

Martin is seeking records concerning Landry’s perceived coziness with the oil and bas industry, including his travel, vehicle purchases, speaking fees and contracts, prompting Landry’s public information officer Ruth Wisher to say, “We can only hope it is not a political witch hunt (wonder where she got that term?) distracting from the important work of our office.”

Funny, but the state’s Public Records Act makes no mention of any requirement of state citizenship as a requisite for obtaining records nor does it cite motives, including “political witch hunts” as reasons to deny access to public information. Even funnier that such a lame line of reasoning would be advanced by the office of the state’s attorney general, presumably the premier legal authority to whom public agencies go for counsel.

Melinda Deslatte, In an Associated Press STORY, said Morvant in making his ruling, said he would not impose overly severe penalties on Landry for the lengthy time it took his office to turn over the records requested by Martin.

Instead, he said, he would only hit Landry’s office with attorney’s fees, fees that Martin’s attorney, Chris Whittington, estimated in the neighborhood of $25,000. And that doesn’t even include the cost of the state’s attorney fees for defending the indefensible.

And there’s the fly in the ointment.

Louisiana Revised Statute 44:35(E)(1) says the following.

If the court finds that the custodian arbitrarily or capriciously withheld the requested record, it may award the requester any actual damages proven by him to have resulted from the actions of the custodian. It may also award the requester civil penalties not to exceed $100 per day, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays and legal public holidays, for each such day of such failure to give notification (emphasis mine).

Additionally, LRS 44:35(E)(2) says:

The custodian shall be personally liable for the payment of any such damages and shall be held liable in solido with the public body for the payment of the requester’s attorney’s fees and other costs of litigation, except where the custodian has withheld or denied production of the requested record or records on advice of legal counsel representing the public body in which the office of such custodian is located. In the event the custodian retains private legal counsel for his defense in connection with the request for records, the court may award attorney’s fees to the custodian (emphasis mine).

In this case, Landry was the legal counsel and the custodian of the records. Accordingly, he should have been held personally liable and hit with a penalty of $100 per cay—except for the fact that Judge Morvant decided to go easy on him.

And those attorney fees? Whether Morvant does award $25,000 or something less, rest assured that Landry won’t be paying it. Instead, you, Mr. and Mrs. Louisiana Taxpayer, will be the ones picking up the tab for that Landry’s little misapplication of a law any sixth-grader should be able to understand. You have already paid Landry’s attorneys and now you’ll pay the other side’s, as well.

Landry? He’s not out one red cent.

And until these judges, pissed or not, start holding public officials personally accountable for their blatant disregard of state law, nothing is going to change. The next official who finds public records requests hitting a little too close to home will try the same tactics of delay and deny, knowing that if he is sued and loses, the state’s taxpayers, not him or her, will pay the piper.

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