May 7, 2014 04:54

The Lafayette Parish School Board's attempt to investigate Superintendent Pat Cooper has been wrought with inconsistencies from day one, but even more alarming is that certain board members have been acting behind the scenes and outside the scope of their own policy in a vindictive effort to oust the head of the school system.

LPSB members Tehmi Chassion and Rae Trahan  

The Lafayette Parish School Board's attempt to investigate Superintendent Pat Cooper has been wrought with inconsistencies from day one, but even more alarming is that certain board members have been acting behind the scenes and outside the scope of their own policy in a vindictive effort to oust the head of the school system.

Even though the state Attorney General's Office did approve the hiring of special legal counsel for the investigation, it doesn't negate that the board failed to follow state law, which requires a resolution explicitly listing the reasons for an investigation and how much it will cost.

Instead of specifying what will be investigated, board member Rae Trahan - who spearheaded the original resolution last year calling for a probe of Cooper - vaguely responded that she wanted to clear up any "rumors" of foul play by the superintendent.

We call that a witch hunt. Because that's what it is.

Those rumors have never been clearly identified by Trahan or her fellow board members, yet attorney Michael Fanning of Grant & Barrow - the original law firm hired by the board to investigate Cooper - apparently was given some direction, evidenced by this very detailed public records request submitted to the school system last month:

Fanning has since withdrawn from the investigation, saying he is too busy to effectively handle the work.

Despite the vagueness of the board's resolution, and the fact the board has never publicly stated its reasons for launching a probe of Cooper, Fanning exhibited a great understanding of the issues he was charged with investigating, raising several questions: Since the reasons for the investigation weren't listed in the board's resolution, where did Fanning get the information he included in his public records request? Was a secret meeting convened between Fanning and the full board to instruct him on what he was to investigate? Did Fanning receive his instructions through emails and phone calls from individual board members? Or (the more likely scenario) did individual board members communicate with Fanning through attorney Bob Hammonds, the board's interim general legal counsel who was hired after the ouster of a local assistant DA who had been representing the system?

Attorney Bob Hammonds has made it clear he works for the school board, not the system (Roger Hamilton, the ADA he replaced, said he worked for the entire system).  Now one of Hammonds' former law partners may be hired in the "witch hunt" investigation of Superintendent Pat Cooper.  

From our discussions with various board members, here's what we know: The full board has never met with Fanning, either in public or behind closed doors. And here's why that's problematic: According to the board's policy, and state law, school board members are not allowed to act in an individual capacity without approval by the full board, which would have been granted during a public meeting.

The policy reads:

Members of the School Board shall have authority only when acting as a board legally in session. The Board shall not be bound in any way by any statement or action on the part of any individual member except when such statement or action is in pursuance of specific action authorized by the School Board.

The board's resolution calling for an investigation of Cooper made no mention of an individual board member being charged with the authority to instruct the investigating attorney on what was to be probed. So again, how did Fanning know?

In an attempt to make sense of it all, we submitted public records requests to attorneys Fanning and Hammonds, as well as all nine members of the board, asking for any correspondence dealing with the investigation of Cooper.

No such correspondence is said to exist.

"I have no records from any members of the Lafayette Parish School Board with instructions and/or specific issues to be investigated," writes Fanning, who did not respond to our follow-up email asking if he'd ever received instruction from attorney Hammonds.

Hammonds did not respond to our public records request nor did he return a call for comment.

And of the nine members of the board, only four responded to our request.

"If you remember, I did not vote for the special counsel," writes Board President Hunter Beasley. "I have no idea what was happening. You probably know more than I do."

Not even the board member who led the charge for Cooper's investigation could provide information related to our records request. "I'm sorry, but I have nothing to provide for you," writes board member Rae Trahan.

Echoing Trahan, board member Mark Allen Babineaux also says, "I do not have anything responsive to your request."

Board member Kermit Bouillion, in a phone interview Wednesday, says he's not been privy to any conversations with fellow board members regarding the investigation, adding he's still in the dark on why it's needed in the first place.

"Rae Trahan said at a meeting that she wanted the investigation so we could clear up any rumors," says Bouillion. "I mean seriously, that's why we're investigating him, for rumors?"

With Fanning's resignation from the investigation, the board is now poised to restart the process and hire another attorney for the probe, and this time, the endeavor has become even more problematic based on who the board wants to hire. According to Wednesday's meeting agenda, the board is schedule to vote on a resolution to hire attorney Shelton Dennis Blunt of the Baton Rouge law firm of Phelps Dunbar. The problem with Blunt's hire is that it represents a clear conflict of interest. Blunt, before working for Phelps Dunbar, was a partner with Bob Hammonds' firm.

Perhaps Blunt's hire wouldn't be an issue if it weren't for his relationship with Hammonds, who has made it clear that his allegiance is with the school board, not the superintendent. But here's where the issue gets even stickier: Hammonds also represents the Louisiana School Board Association, and guess who sits on the LSBA's board of directors - none other than Rae Trahan, the architect behind Cooper's investigation.

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