Our FOX 8 investigation of a prominent St. Tammany Parish lawyer's offensive comments to a client have drawn a sharp reaction from a New Orleans councilman, as well as a civil rights organizer on the North Shore.
Councilman Jason Williams, who's also an attorney, listened to the audio recording featured in our Wednesday night report.
"I'm offended as a New Orleanian," Williams says. "I'm offended as a black man. I'm offended as an attorney."
The audio was recorded by John Hoogacker. Nearly three years ago, his SUV ended up in the lake after an 18-wheeler ran him off the road.
The accident happened in Orleans Parish, two miles from the St. Tammany Parish line. But his attorney, Chuck Hughes, filed suit in St. Tammany. After multiple surgeries and hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses and lost income, Hoogacker was unhappy with the settlement - he received $187,000. He wanted to know why his attorney filed suit in St. Tammany instead of New Orleans, where the accident happened. Here's how Hughes responded.
"It's a decision I made early on to file it in St. Tammany instead of Orleans because, guess what?" Hughes said. "New Orleans is n******. You're white. You go down there, they say f*** you. That's why. That's what it was, to put it bluntly, ok? I mean, it's Orleans Parish. It's corrupt, it's left-handed, it's black-oriented and, you know, we the white people coming down there with a b******* story."
Councilman Williams says the audio recording makes him sick to his stomach. "It's insulting and it's sad, frankly," he tells us, "that in 2014 you've got a man who's putting a very serious situation in the hands of this attorney, and for this attorney to give him that advice is morally reprehensible."
Hughes is a private attorney with the Mandeville law firm Talley, Anthony, Hughes and Knight, LLC. But he also does contract work for St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain. In 2012, his firm made $600,000.
Williams thinks the sheriff should fire him. He says, "I think any municipality or any entity that is paid through tax dollars - frankly, any private corporation that gets no money from tax dollars - if they've got an employee or a contract with someone who is using that sort of racially charged, racially divisive language and believes those things should be fired."
We asked Sheriff Strain to comment on the controversy, and he sent us this brief written statement:
St. Tammany Chief Deputy Brian Trainor, who's on leave from the Sheriff's Office as he runs for the 22nd Judicial District Attorney's office, is another attorney who worked with Hughes on the Hoogacker case.
"Jack Strain should terminate Chuck Hughes' employment immediately, and not use any more of the taxpayers' money to pay this man - because he is a very sick man," says Belinda Parker Brown, the president of a civil rights organization called Louisiana United International. She is also a resident of St. Tammany Parish.
Brown tells us, "He said that all the New Orleans… he said they are n******. He's talking about every person and every race and every nationality in New Orleans are n******. You know, what he's really saying is that St. Tammany is better than New Orleans. St. Tammany is better than any city in this state. That's what they're really saying. And I am appalled at the fact that he would say something like that."
Wednesday afternoon, Hughes apologized for his comments, writing us, "The words in the recording do not reflect the feelings and compassion in my heart. In a moment of frustration, I used indefensible language during a private conversation concerning a private matter. I'm terribly sorry for the embarrassment I've caused my friends, colleagues and clients. My hope is that I'm judged by my lifelong body of work for justice and fairness."
But Brown says that's not enough - even with the apology, she's outraged by his comments.
"We are not going to tolerate this type of racist sickness in our community or in our state," she says. "This is the 21st century."