Zurik: City of Gretna's probe of deputy police chief hidden from public view

Zurik: City of Gretna's probe of deputy police chief hidden from public view

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - "There's a smell, you know?" says Tulane law professor Joel Friedman. "There's a certain odor… It's very distressing."

To Friedman, that smell means something just doesn't seem right.

"I just don't understand why everything is being kept so secret," he says.

He's talking about the City of Gretna's investigation of a FOX 8 report of a high-ranking police official, who possibly committed a criminal violation.

"Too much secrecy, too much local dealing suggests there's something going on," Friedman warns.

We found evidence that Gretna Deputy Chief of Police Anthony Christiana may improperly have been paid his public salary while out of town in Brazil, Canada, Las Vegas, Napa Valley.

A certified public accountant we interviewed called it stealing.

"You're being paid for something you're not providing," said Patrick Lynch of Rogers, Lynch and Associates. "That's stealing."

Christiana has a side job, a dignitary protection service.  And in that role, he's been on the road dignitaries, including legendary musician Paul McCartney. But we found Facebook pictures and flight information that show him out of the country while corresponding pay stubs reveal he didn't deduct the proper vacation.

In February, we interviewed Christiana's boss, Police Chief Arthur Lawson.  He told us Christiana doesn't accrue comp time. He also claimed Christiana's assistant documents his vacation time.

"When he goes out of town on the trips, vacation time is put in by the girl in office," Chief Lawson told us.

Christiana took personal trips, too - to Las Vegas to watch an Elton John concert, and on a Caribbean cruise where he spent six days away from work. But he didn't take one vacation day.

Four and a half months after our investigation, we have little information on what Gretna actually has done to address the controversy.

Rewind to March 7, about one week after our initial story.  We asked Chief Lawson for an update on the investigation. He replied that he was appointing an independent special investigative team to look into the allegations.

We followed up with Lawson two weeks later. All he would say then was that the committee is made up of competent and independent professionals.

In late April we asked again for an update. The police chief referred us to city attorney Mark Morgan.  And some of Morgan's answers have Professor Friedman concerned.

"My problem is with the process," Friedman says.

When the city attorney finally got back to us, he wrote that his office immediately sought out and appointed an independent committee to investigate.  But remember: Lawson told us in March that he was appointing an independent special investigative team.  So was it the police chief or the city attorney who actually appointed the special investigative team?

Morgan later elaborated on the investigative committee, but raised even more questions. He wrote that the Gretna City Council directed his office to form and fully investigate the findings in our story as a local ethics review board.

That's crucial, because state laws governing ethics review boards prevent them from releasing information on ongoing investigations.  It allows them to keep much of their work from the public and press.

"I would love to know why the city attorney is doing it this way, creating an ethics committee," Friedman says, "because I'm guessing he created it because ethics committee proceedings are privileged under the public disclosure law."

He says it's possible that the ethics committee was formed so that information on its activities could be hidden from news media.

According to state law, in order for a local government to form a local ethics committee, some ordinance or statute must be adopted. In this case, Gretna's city council would have to have formally voted for the creation of this board.

But we can't find any record of the council doing so, no formal vote directing Morgan to form it as he alleged to us in an email.  And when we inquired about a vote, Morgan never responded.

"I believe that this is a self-standing committee that he just - an ad hoc committee – that he created that doesn't exist," Friedman tells us.

We asked Morgan to give us the names of the people serving on this ethics committee; so far, he has refused.

"It seems to me the public should at least be able to know what are the steps, who decided to create an ethics committee, who's on that ethics committee," Friedman says.  "I think the city attorney told you, 'Well I'm not going to tell you the names but I'll tell you that they're upstanding citizens.' I mean, that's not sufficient."

In fact, Friedman thinks state law requires Gretna to give us the names of the committee members. "I don't see what interest is served by not telling you the names of the members," he tells us.  "Why keep it a secret?  Why? The law doesn't demand it."

Both Friedman and local CPA Patrick Lynch say these are potential criminal violations by Christiana.  But from what we've uncovered, someone in Gretna apparently made the decision to limit this to an ethics investigation, not a criminal probe.

So, we not know who made that determination, and we don't know why. We also don't know whether this panel is looking at other potential violations.

"Of course, they're legitimate questions," Friedman says.

Our investigation found the deputy chief is a good friend of Chief Lawson.  The two traveled together and, in at least one instance, Christiana didn't deduct that travel from his vacation bank.

When we asked Lawson whether he could evaluate the matter fairly, he told us, "I think my reputation in 41 years of law enforcement will tell you that I will be fair. And you can speak to individuals out in the community: I've fired people who have been friends of mine."

In March, Lawson said he'd removed himself from the investigation and he referred all questions to the city attorney, Mark Morgan. It just so happens that Christiana contributed to Morgan's last campaign for the Jefferson Parish School Board. Here's a picture of the two of them together:

Morgan told us by email that his service as a school board member was completely independent of his obligations to Gretna.  He also added the local ethics committee is independent of himself; his role is limited to point of contact.

Nonetheless, the Metropolitan Crime Commission and Tulane's Joel Friedman both think Gretna should refer the investigation to an outside authority: the MCC says state police while Friedman suggests the attorney general.

"It may or may not be the legally mandated thing to do," Friedman says.  "But it's the logical, rational, good-operating-procedures way of going about things."

Our legal expert says he's concerned that all of this is little more than an attempt to protect the deputy chief.

"Why else do it?" Friedman asks. "What interest is served by this very officious language, 'Well, you know, all of this stuff is privileged information under Louisiana statute blah-blah-blah-and-blah-blah' - some of which it is, some of which it isn't. There's no public interest served by keeping all of this secret."

We should note that Morgan has been responsive and timely in answering all but one of our email inquiries. He did tell us Monday, and repeated in a statement Wednesday, that the ethics committee includes a forensic CPA, a former federal prosecutor, a retired judge and an employment law specialist.

Morgan's statement is posted below, as presented to FOX 8:

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