Supreme Court sends LHA board saga back to Rubin

by Leslie Turk

The state Supreme Court followed the Third Circuit in dealing another blow to City-Parish President Joey Durel and the C-P council on their decision to remove Lafayette Housing Authority board members.

Joe Dennis, John Freeman and Leon Simmons could soon be back in the sympathetic courtroom of District Judge Ed Rubin. The former Lafayette Housing Authority board of commission members have been fighting for reinstatement more than a year. City-Parish President Joey Durel removed them in August 2010 after a blistering audit of the agency led to an FBI investigation, and Rubin reinstated them Oct. 27, 2010, calling their dismissal arbitrary and capricious because board member Donald Fuselier was allowed to stay on.

(Fuselier subsequently resigned from the board in February of this year.)

Durel, however, again removed Dennis, Freeman and Simmons last November claiming the trio illegally went into executive session (although board members asked the media to leave the room so they could go into executive session, a visiting judge found that they had not violated the law).

After the council upheld their November dismissal, the three went back to Rubin, asking that Durel and the council be held in contempt of court for violating Rubin's original order to reinstate them.

Arguing that the second dismissal was a new removal unrelated to Rubin's order, the administration appealed, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeal ruled against LCG this April, noting it was premature to challenge the contempt issue. Durel et al also sought to have Rubin recused, claiming the order for contempt was secured through ex parte contact with the plaintiffs' counsel. LCG also alleged bias and prejudice on Rubin's part, noting in court filings some of the judge's comments in a conference call:

a. "I'm irate about this matter. I've seen nothing but disregard of my October 27 Order."
b. "I'm tired of this [expletive deleted]."
c. "I almost held them in contempt last time but Pat Ottinger took responsibility. Now they're doing it again."
d. "I'm tired of being in the middle of this [expletive deleted]."
e. "Mr. Hebert, unless the two of you can work something out before Friday, there's
going to be a hearing on this matter."

After Rubin's suggestion the parties try to settle, Hebert received an email from the former board members' counsel offering to discuss settlement terms to avoid a March 11, 2011, contempt proceeding, according to court filings. "It is unclear how a settlement between litigants can avoid contempt proceedings, but this email made it clear that both counsel who participated in the conference call with Judge Rubin had the same understanding of comment 4(e) above a settlement between the parties would avoid the imminent contempt proceedings," Hebert writes in the filing. "The only possible relief available to Respondents would be a reinstatement to their positions as Commissioners on the Lafayette Housing Authority, and/or payment of some sum of money."

After the circuit court also declined in April of this year to reverse Rubin's decision to recuse himself, LCG appealed to the state Supreme Court. On Sept. 16, the higher court declined to hear the case, effectively sending it back to district court.

For now at least, this entire costly legal battle is an exercise in futility. There no longer is a board of commissioners of the LHA. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken over the troubled agency's operations, having recently hired Katie Anderson as chief operating officer. When a new board might be seated is anybody's guess.