Legislative Intent

by Jeremy Alford

Did House Speaker-designee Jim Tucker push legislation earlier this year for his sole benefit? He and his friends say no, but now the courts are involved.

For a new governor hell-bent on making Louisiana the gold standard for ethics reform, House Speaker-designee Jim Tucker comes with some baggage. When Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal anointed the fellow Republican as his choice to preside over the House, Tucker had just been cleared of wrongdoing by the state Ethics Board after a lengthy probe. The Algiers lawmaker had been accused of improperly receiving housing tax credits through a hurricane recovery program, but the charges didn't stick.

Tucker, as an elected official, did win competitive tax credits totaling $1.89 million to rebuild two New Orleans apartment complexes that he owns, but he never used them. He claims the allegation against him was a political smear initiated by his enemies to derail his ascendant career.

Even after the Ethics Board cleared Tucker, Chris Whittington, chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, dredged up the charges once more when Jindal gave his imprimatur. In response, Tucker threatened to sue Whittington and the party for making libelous remarks.

Tucker donned a Teflon exterior when he dealt with the much-ballyhooed tax credits, but now he faces another legal problem ' just in time for the Jan. 14 speaker's election. Tucker did not grant an interview for this story, refusing to comment on pending litigation. A mountain of legal documents in two parishes and interviews with other lawmakers help fill in the blanks.

During the 2007 regular legislative session, Tucker proffered and spoke in favor of House Bill 501 (now Act 99) at a May meeting of the House Civil Law Committee. He sold it to lawmakers as a way to help aggrieved hurricane evacuees change venues for child support and custody hearings to parishes where they had taken up residence following the 2005 storms ' but only if their former spouse lives outside Louisiana.

Judges already had the discretion to grant change-of-venue motions ' and relocation after a hurricane certainly presents solid grounds for such a change ' but the law pushed by Tucker strips the courts of their discretion on such matters and, in theory, allows evacuees to "forum shop" if they prefer the judges where they now live over those in the parish where they previously argued their cases.

With Tucker arguing in favor, the bill passed the Civil Law Committee with little debate and was eventually signed into law by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

On Sept. 18, roughly one month after the new law took effect, Tucker's wife, the former Marisol F. Lannes, filed a motion to change venues in an ongoing child support battle against her ex-husband, who now lives in Illinois, proposing to move it from Plaquemines Parish to Orleans Parish and citing the very law her new husband helped pass. Tucker married the former Mrs. Lannes (now Marisol Tucker) in July of last year, and she moved from Belle Chasse to Algiers not long thereafter. The move covered a distance of just six miles, but that was enough; it brought her across parish lines ' fitting neatly into the parameters of the new law.

David Hufft, a Belle Chasse attorney who represents Marisol's former husband, David M.D. Lannes, claims that Tucker helped create the bill. He says Tucker violated the Louisiana Constitution, ignored an obvious conflict of interest and intended to "affect ongoing litigation" through legislation, which is nothing new to the Louisiana Legislature. Hufft also argues in court documents that Tucker's wife shouldn't be allowed to take advantage of the law "because the parties do not fall into the protected class, victims of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, who relocated to a new parish a further distance from the current venue." (Hufft notes in court documents that Mrs. Tucker's new residence in Algiers is still closer to the Plaquemines Parish courthouse than it is to Civil District Court in downtown New Orleans.)

Hufft adds that prior to the motion to change venues being filed in September, the former Mrs. Lannes had received an "unfavorable ruling" in Plaquemines Parish and was therefore hoping for a more favorable venue. She has since appealed those rulings against her.

In Tucker's defense, he was not the official author of the legislation. That title goes to Rep. Jeff Arnold, a New Orleans Democrat who once lived a few houses away from Tucker and who remains a close friend of the speaker-apparent.

Arnold says it's not unusual for Tucker to handle a bill for him in his absence, as was the case during the May hearing of the House Civil Law Committee. Yet Arnold maintains that Tucker did not ask him to file the bill; rather, the request came from constituents. "But [Tucker] did let me know later in the process that the bill would affect his own situation," Arnold adds.

David W. Birdsong, a Metairie attorney who represents Tucker, issued a press release on the litigation. He points out that David M.D. Lannes had previously "been found guilty of a criminal physical attack on his ex-wife" and accuses the Illinois resident of trying to plant blemishes upon Tucker's public service career. "This whole thing is a smoke screen by Mr. Lannes, who is trying to threaten Mr. Tucker and his standing as a legislator in an attempt to gain an unfair advantage in a child support case," Birdsong says.

Hufft, who could not be reached for an interview, isn't backing down. He has filed a motion to compel testimony from a dozen members of the House Civil Law Committee. He wants to question them about Tucker's possible involvement in the legislation beyond his testimony for it during the committee hearing. Rep. Shirley D. Bowler, a term-limited Harahan Republican, says she received a certified letter informing her of the situation, but she doesn't think anything will come of it. "I truly do not think we passed this bill to benefit any one person," she says.

Other committee members, like Rep. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat, immediately recognized merit in Arnold's bill and Tucker's arguments during the May hearing. "I have a couple of clients in a similar situation," Morrell says. "Some judges are quite unreasonable."

Bowler, however, adds that she did originally have concerns that the bill would be used to "forum shop," but an amendment she added on the House floor addressed her concerns.

A hearing to decide whether the committee members should testify had not been scheduled by press time, but Bowler says the House will likely have House Clerk Butch Speer argue that lawmakers should enjoy some type of privilege with regard to their legislative decision-making process. "I just don't know how it came to this," Bowler says. "In all my 16 years in the House I have never seen a committee involved with a motion to compel testimony, especially with regard to what might have happened behind the scenes."

Ultimately, Tucker's new wife might get the forum she wants, but this controversy couldn't come at a worse time for him.