Zurik: Legal action puts a muzzle on state watchdog

Zurik: Legal action puts a muzzle on state watchdog
Jefferson Parish 2nd District Justice of the Peace Patrick DeJean (NOLA.com photo)
Jefferson Parish 2nd District Justice of the Peace Patrick DeJean (NOLA.com photo)
Slidell Memorial Hospital CEO Bill Davis
Slidell Memorial Hospital CEO Bill Davis

BATON ROUGE, LA (WVUE) - A few weeks after we showed you a Jefferson Parish elected official drinking in a bar, the state's legislative auditor raided that elected official's house. But 18 months after that investigation picked up, the auditor is unable to release a report that would reveal whether they found any wrongdoing.

"It's a big concern for me," says Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.

That report on Constable Tony Thomassie is tied up in the courts - not because of Thomassie, but because of a lawsuit filed by Justice of the Peace Patrick DeJean, of Jefferson Parish's Second Justice Court in Marrero. The auditor launched an investigation into Thomassie and DeJean, and has findings on both in a report that was ready to be released publically in March. But DeJean filed suit, trying to prevent its release.

"We actually have won it at the lower court level," Purpera recounts, "and he expressed his will, his desire to appeal it.  And so we have to now wait for the appeal process."

The auditor can't release the report until a judge gives his approval.  But if another public body got a copy, nothing would prevent them from handing it over to us.

So we tried to get a copy of the draft report from the justice of the peace himself, through a public records request.  He sent us a letter, saying he has not received any such reports.

The auditor says that's not true. "We provided him a copy back in March," Purpera tells us.

When we requested a statement from DeJean Wednesday about the audit, he sent this statement:

First I was never informed that an audit was being done on anyone except Thomassie.  This was witnessed by others that only Thomassie was being audited.  I did not find out otherwise until after the so called completed audit.

So while the courts work through the appeal process, the public has no idea how its money was spent by either the justice of the peace or the constable.

"The public has a right to know," Purpera insists. "I know they have the desire to know - they need to know how their money's being spent.  And this office is all about getting the facts, putting sunshine on it, letting the public know how their officials are using their jobs and what they're doing with those offices."

There's more.  Right now, the auditor's office is fighting another battle in the courtroom.

"I've been working here at the legislative auditor's office for 31 and a half years," the auditor says. "And all that time, this is the first occasion where we have public entities using the court system to prohibit and slow down and prevent us from issuing audit reports."

Last year, legislators passed a law requiring all public entities receiving public money to disclose the compensation paid to their chief executive officer or their highest-ranking employee. All have complied but one - Slidell Memorial Hospital.

"And they immediately went to court to prohibit me from issuing that report publically," Purpera tells us. "So they didn't want to be in violation of the law that requires them to put the information in the report, but they also didn't want the information to be disseminated to the public."

Slidell Memorial, a public hospital, doesn't want the public to know how much CEO Bill Davis is being paid.

"Doesn't mean it's improper or anything like that," Purpera notes.  "It's disclosure, it's putting sunshine on it."

He says the hospital is trying to hide behind a law that allows them to withhold releasing information that would hurt their ability to compete with other hospitals.

"In my view, it doesn't," Purpera says.

One reason why is that all other public hospitals in the state have released their CEO compensation.  So we know Mark Peters at East Jefferson made $691,190; Patti Ellish at St. Tammany Hospital made $460,447.  All other salaries have been released, other than that of Bill Davis, who's trying to keep his private.

Purpera says he thinks his office, and the public, will prevail in both court cases. But he says it's frustrating and time-consuming for him, battling public officials who don't want public information released.

"it's disheartening but it's, I think, even more kind of a sign of the times," Purpera says, "that you've got various actors in some government agencies - they don't want the public to know the truth of what's happening with public dollars."

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