Legal Matters

Stutes drops LCG lawsuit; both sides ‘satisfied’

by Walter Pierce

With the district attorney and consolidated government walking away with what amounts to a truce, the nagging issues of consolidation in Lafayette Parish will remain unresolved.

District Attorney Keith Stutes, trailed by Assistant District Attorney Daniel Landry, leaves the Lafayette Parish Courthouse following a hearing in late May.
Photos by Wynce Nolley

[Editor's Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the DA's office asked that the suit be dismissed without prejudice and that the city requested it be dismissed with prejudice; an earlier version had those requests flipped.]

The lawsuit filed by District Attorney Keith Stutes against Lafayette Consolidated Government has been dismissed at the DA’s request. It’s over. The two sides walked away from the Lafayette Parish Courthouse Tuesday morning “satisfied” with the outcome.

In broad strokes, Stutes will no longer remit quarterly “reimbursements” to LCG — roughly totalling $650,000 annually — to cover some of his staff salaries, and consolidated government will not budget that money into the next fiscal year budget that will be approved late this summer. While Stutes will keep the $650,000 his predecessor, Mike Harson, had been paying to LCG, the chief prosecutor says he will still struggle to pay his expenses. And in an era of plummeting sales tax collections, LCG’s budget for the parish general fund will suffer.

“I have an obligation to serve the public, and this is in its best interest,” Stutes said following the short hearing before ad hoc Judge Dennis Waldron, a retired New Orleans judge appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court to preside over the case.

“It’s time to get back to prosecuting and stop litigating,” Stutes added. “I’ll do whatever is necessary to keep the office running.”

Tuesday’s court action was originally scheduled to address a single matter: Stutes wanted Waldron to bar LCG from acting on an ordinance passed last week by the City-Parish Council that reduced funding to his office by $500,000. (Arguably the council's budget adjustment was just an accounting move: Stutes had already stopping making the reimbursement payments although the previous council, after having been informed by the DA that he would cease payments, budgeted in the money anyway; the council last week merely adjusted the budget to reflect that shortfall.)

On Friday, LCG’s attorneys submitted a reconventional demand laying out consolidated government’s case why only the parish, not the city of Lafayette, is responsible for funding for the district attorney’s office. It also argues that Acadia and Vermilion parishes should properly be party to the litigation because those parishes also comprise the 15th Judicial District for which Stutes is the DA.

But LCG’s reconventional demand goes further:

...the salaries of the District Attorney and certain assistant district attorneys are to be paid evenly by Acadia Parish, Lafayette Parish and Vermilion Parish.

The District Attorney is requiring Lafayette Parish to pay, and Lafayette Parish has paid, a disproportionately greater percentage of the District Attorney’s expenses than Acadia Parish and Vermilion Parish. For example, Lafayette Parish paid 80% of the District Attorney’s expenses in 2014 (per the most recent audited financial report available).

The method used by the District Attorney to allocate expenses between Acadia Parish, Lafayette Parish and Vermilion Parish is clearly arbitrary, unfair, unreasonable, and contrary to law.

Reached about an hour after adjournment — reporters were provided with copies of the reconventional demand when court adjourned — to respond to LCG’s claim about funding allocations among the three parishes of the 15th JDC, Stutes vigorously disagreed in a written statement:

The contribution of each of the parishes of Acadia and Vermilion are based upon the actual needs of each respective office, the individual workloads of each respective office, and the actual resources of each office AND of Acadia and Vermilion governments. The ultimate budgets of each were the product of good faith discussions. Due to the vast difference between the workloads of Lafayette and of Acadia and Vermilion, an equal division of the expenses among the Parish governments is preposterous. The expenses are fairly distributed based upon the work and the resources of each office.

LCG further argued that some expenses for Stutes’ office — the pretrial diversion program for example — are not the responsibility of parish government and should not be considered in his budget requests to LCG.

Stutes requested Tuesday that the case be dismissed without prejudice, meaning the issue could be litigated at a future date. Judge Waldron, however, granted LCG attorney Steve Oats’ request and dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning it is permanently finished and cannot be revisited.

But by the time the matter concluded around 10:30 Tuesday morning, both sides said they were satisfied with the outcome.

“We feel that what’s happened here today is in the best interest of the parish,” said Council Vice Chairman Kenneth Boudreaux, who along with Council Chairman Jay Castille had been subpoenaed to attend Tuesday’s hearing.

Castille said the larger issue of consolidation and the separation of budgets between the parish and the city of Lafayette under the umbrella of Lafayette Consolidated Government might be addressed after the council has finalized the 2016-17 budget late this summer, although he went short of promising such a review.

“I’m satisfied with the outcome [today],” Castille said.