Zurik: Landrieu calls house arrest threat 'judicial coup'
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In a wide-ranging one-on-one interview, Mayor Mitch Landrieu says New Orleans firefighters have had bad leadership of their pension fund, and a judge has overstepped his authority. Landrieu's interview follows a threat from the judge to place the mayor under house arrest. In an exclusive interview with FOX 8, the mayor also acknowledges that the city does owe money to nearly 400 retired and current firefighters.
The mayor says the threat by Chief Judge Kern Reese of Civil District Court, and whether he has the authority to back it up, will be tested in the appellate courts.
"I think he overstepped his authority as a judge," Landrieu says. "So this is really a judicial coup."
In our 20-minute interview, Mayor Landrieu cautiously criticized Judge's Reese's ruling, even when we pointed out that the two had been on opposite sides of other recent battles. Sources say Reese supported Landrieu's opponent, Michael Bagneris, in his reelection bid.
When we ask the mayor whether Judge Reese's purported support for an election opponent is playing into the issue, he tells us, "I'm going to let you talk to the judge about that. You know the facts, you've followed that campaign. You know that the judges wanted a new courthouse; I said no. You know Judge Bagneris was so upset that he stopped and he ran against me. You're going to have to figure that out yourself. I'm not going to impugn the judge's motives. But you should ask him that."
The city faces a long list of unpaid judgments against it, costing more than $34 million. The mayor says the judge has essentially let the firefighters skip to the front of this line.
"Essentially what the firefighters are asking, for the pension fund, is special treatment," Landrieu says, "to be put in front of all other citizens who have judgments that the city owes as well. And we've never had an instance in this state where a state judge has had the authority to order a municipality to pay a money judgment. It's never happened in the history of this state. So I don't think there's precedent for it."
The battle with the firefighters has two main layers. First, there's what's called "longevity pay," passed by the state legislature 35 years ago. It gave most firefighters an automatic two percent raise. But for about 20 years, the longevity pay increase was never properly funded.
"The longevity lawsuit came from legislators who are not from here, telling Mayor [Dutch] Morial that he had to go tax the taxpayers of New Orleans to give the firefighters that [which] no other city employee is entitled to. So Mayor Morial said no, Mayor [Sidney] Barthelemy said no, the other Mayor [Marc] Morial said no, Mayor [Ray] Nagin said no. This has been going on since 1980.
The Landrieu administration says firefighters did get raises during that time, and for more than the legislature required - but the raises were not properly disclosed as longevity raises. Landrieu says the other part of this fight has to do with the firefighters' pension fund, which was the focus of a series of FOX 8 investigations called "Playing With Fire," We showed widespread mismanagement at the fund, and tens of millions of dollars in lost money from poor investments.
"They can make these investments in the Cayman Islands, they can make investments in the Lakewood Country Club - and value it at $36 million when it's really $6 million, and basically lie about the value of it - and then go to the taxpayers and say, 'pay me more,'" he tells us
The majority of that board's members were elected by current and former firefighters.
"Unfortunately, people get caught in the middle of bad decisions by their leaders," the mayor says. "The leaders of this pension fund - by the way, which have all been thrown out of office because of malfeasance… They tried to get back on, they got voted off. [They] have put these guys in a position that's untenable and/or unreasonable, in asking the people of New Orleans to give them something - either that they're not entitled to or [the city] can't pay right now, or can only pay in a way that doesn't debilitate the citizens of New Orleans.
Landrieu says yes, the firefighters are owed money, but the question is how much money.
"You can't pay it all at one time to one group of people and shut down everything else," Landrieu says. "And the firefighter pension guys just found a judge who's been willing to push the envelope legally and say, 'No, I'm going to do something that no judge in America has ever done and put the mayor in jail.'
"So, let's be clear about this," he continues. "This is not about me. This is the judiciary, securing the executive branch of government. That's what this is."
Landrieu says what the judge and the leaders of the lawsuit haven't considered is the impact on taxpayers, who are already paying for police and sheriff consent decrees and higher Sewerage and Water Board rates. Landrieu says huge lump sum payments to the firefighters would cripple the city, which is why he says he's willing to be confined to his house.
"What sense does this make?" Landrieu asks. "Now we're paying more money out of the city general fund for firefighters' pension than we are for the entire fire department itself. If we then, in order to pay this judgment, have to invoke layoffs and we have to do across-the-board layoffs, what sense does it make to layoff firefighters, police officers, individuals who work in city government, NORD coaches, et cetera, et cetera? So this is not a game of chicken. It's a very serious game. And this city has been to hell and back."
We gave Judge Reese the opportunity to respond to this story. The judge told us he can't comment on ongoing litigation.
While the longevity and pension cases are separate, Landrieu says they need to be looked at as one. And he points to Judge Reese, who urged both sides to go to mediation for a global settlement on all outstanding issues.
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