NEW ORLEANS - The city of New Orleans is no stranger to lawsuits requesting government records. But one such lawsuit now has Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas on the hook for monetary damages.
The civil court lawsuit was filed in 2009 by the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center when the city and police department under then-chief Warren Riley declined to turn over police records. Attorneys for the group sued to get files related to a death penalty murder case under the Louisiana Public Records Act.
Court records show that even after Civil Court Judge Paulette Irons ruled against the NOPD, the city still refused to hand over the courts. So Bourke and his organization took the case all the way to the state Supreme Court.
“The Fourth Circuit denied their appeal, describing their argument as “inexplicable,” “ Bourke said. “They applied again to the Louisiana Supreme Court, who denied their writ application. And so there was a final court order, no more appeals, they had to hand over the records, and they still didn’t hand over the records.”
The city finally gave in after Civil Court Judge Paulette Irons threatened the city with contempt.
“It took us to get, in just under two years, what we should've been given in three days. We can’t afford that. Members of the public can’t afford that,” Bourke said.
To recoup the organization’s legal fees, Bourke went back to court to try to collect under an infrequently used provision in the law in which the “custodian” of government records can be held personally liable for damages.
Irons ruled in Bourke’s favor, rendering a $26,621 judgment against the city. That means the custodian, Serpas, is now personally on the hook for the money – $11,000 in fines and $15,621 in attorneys’ fees – even though he wasn’t chief when the lawsuit was originally filed.
Neither Mayor Landrieu nor Chief Serpas would comment about the case, although City Hall sources said Serpas wasn't even aware of the case or judgment until Channel 4 made inquiries.
In a statement released Tuesday, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said of Irons’ ruling, “We believe the judgment was rendered wrongly.”
The city attorney’s office has filed a motion to try and block the judgment. But if the motion is unsuccessful, Irons has scheduled a hearing next week for an examination of Chief Serpas’ personal finances, the first step in collecting his debt.
In his statement, Berni also defended the city’s general policy on public records.
“Our administration has led on the issues of openness and transparency in government, from overhauling procurement rules to introducing accountability STAT programs, among others,” Berni wrote. “We release public records in accordance with the law. And the Courts have ruled in our favor in most of these instances, noting that we have released records in accordance with the law.”
But many lawyers who have filed similar public records lawsuits against the city and police department disagree.
Attorney Brett Prendergast is fighting an ongoing public records lawsuit against the NOPD and city. His client is fired New Orleans police detective Catherine Beckett, who is trying to get NOPD records in order to appeal her dismissal.
“It seems they’re going out of their way to deny us access to any records no matter the forum we choose to pursue it in,” Prendergast said.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said his experience with the city’s reluctance to hand over public records goes back decades.
“I’ve been making public records requests for 26 years and I can say that the worst response time that I get anytime I make a request – and I make them in parishes all over the region and with the state – is with the city of New Orleans,” Goyeneche said.
Goyeneche said the judgment against Serpas is especially troubling.
“It’s eroding public confidence in government and it’s also costing the city of New Orleans untold thousands of dollars in wasted legal time,” he said. “It’s ironic that the office that is responsible for the legal matters of the city of New Orleans is so derelict in responding to a state law.”
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