Wednesday, July 27, 2011
By Walter Pierce
Could The Independent’s reporting on the Gachassin saga be criminal? Evidently ... maybe.
As we acclimate ourselves to our stay in Bizarro-ville complements of a mercurial developer’s billboards comes a subtle warning from the former head of the Louisiana Ethics Board, now a private attorney, informing The Independent that we could — maybe, possibly, conceivably — be in jeopardy of running afoul of a provision in state law designed to protect individuals facing investigation by the Ethics Board.
Baton Rouge lawyer Gray Sexton served four decades as the chief administrator of the board before turning his expertise in gold standards into a lucrative post-administration job defending high-profile public figures including Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden and others against ethics charges before the agency he once headed. If you have the money, Gray’s your guy.
Greg Gachassin has the money.
The Lafayette mortgage company owner turned low-income housing developer, a frequent flyer in the pages of this newspaper since the Lafayette Housing Authority debacle spread its sodden tail feathers last summer, has retained Sexton’s services in an apparent effort to attenuate our aggressive reporting on Gachassin’s questionable ethics.
On Monday of last week, I received a letter from Sexton on the letterhead of his firm, Sexton-Hebert, citing a section of Louisiana Revised Statute 42: “It shall be a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not more than two thousand dollars or imprisonment for not more than one year, or both, for any member of the board, its executive secretary, other employee, or any other person, to make public the testimony taken at a private investigation or private hearing of the board or to make any public statement or give out any information concerning a private investigation or private hearing of the board without the written request of the public servant or other person investigated.”
Sexton urges The Ind to proceed with caution: “Prior to this correspondence, you may not have been aware of the criminal statute contained in the Ethics Code,” the counselor writes. “Now that you are aware of it, I trust that you will be mindful and respectful of the confidentiality provisions contained in the Ethics Code if you report any stories in the future about Mr. Gachassin.”
Gachassin’s attorney singles out our INDreporter blog from the previous week in which Editorial Director Leslie Turk reports that the Ethics Board was scheduled to hear “at least two related complaints” against Gachassin — one filed by an anonymous Lafayette resident; the other by state Rep. Rickey Hardy, the latter of whom was instrumental in exposing the LHA’s dysfunctional and possibly criminal operations. Specifically, Sexton takes issue with The Ind quoting a portion of what Hardy wrote in his complaint to the Ethics Board urging it to investigate Gachassin.
“Some of the information that has been provided to Ms. Turk is confidential information pursuant to the Ethics Code and this information has been improperly provided to Ms. Turk,” Sexton writes.
In fact, this newspaper referenced Hardy’s complaint as early as May 9 of this year, lifting what was essentially the introduction of his letter to current board administrator Kathleen Allen.
In parsing the language in R.S. 42, we find it to be broad at best, if not vague. Sexton was cordial in a follow-up call late last week: “We don’t want to cause you guys any grief; we would just appeal to you to stop publishing articles that contain confidential and private information concerning the actions of the Ethics Board,” Sexton says. “Greg may very well take some action against the quote complainant end quote, but as far as you guys are concerned, we would just appeal to you to stop doing it.”
Our problem with the law, Sexton’s civility notwithstanding, is that this newspaper’s reporting on Gachassin has been preliminary to any hearing by the Ethics Board concerning Gachassin. Indeed, we reported that a hearing would take place, but we’ve reported nothing — no testimony, no evidence, nothing — related to a hearing or an investigation.
That, says Ryan Brown, attorney for the Louisiana Press Association, is a noteworthy distinction — with a caveat: “My recommendation would be, if you print the fact of procedurally what’s going on and you leave the reader to make their own conclusion, I think you’re OK, without getting into any invasion of privacy issues,” Brown says. “But in the legal world, a lawsuit can be filed on any day for any reason.” Hardy’s complaint to the board was the direct result of reporting this newspaper did on Gachassin based on public records, particularly those of the Lafayette Public Trust Finance Authority, for which Gachassin served as chairman at the same time he signed on as a paid consultant on housing projects being funded in part by the LPTFA — a fairly clear violation of state ethics law in our estimation and, based on his complaint, in Hardy’s as well. The state rep references Turk’s reporting in his letter to Allen. The Louisiana Code of Ethics specifies that someone who serves on a board or commission such as the LPTFA is prohibited from doing business with the entity until two years after leaving it. Gachassin, the records show, didn’t even bother to formally resign before signing on as a paid consultant for two federally funded low-income housing tax credit projects in north Lafayette: the single-family development Villa Gardens and the elderly apartment complex Cypress Trails.
But that’s old news. And so is newspapers reporting on the filing of ethics complaints. A quick Google search turns up several examples of Louisiana news media informing the public that a complaint has been filed. Our friends at The Daily Advertiser did it as recently as Tuesday of last week in a story on Gachassin.
Sexton’s successor at the Ethics Board, Allen, was of little help, pointing out that board members and staff are prohibited from discussing complaints and, moreover, it would be the district attorney who decides whether a newspaper writer or editor — or anyone for that matter — has committed a misdemeanor.
So, where does that leave us?
Evidently, reporting that complaints against Gachassin had been filed, which we did, might have been a crime. Reporting that a hearing was scheduled, which we did, might have been, too. And reporting that an investigation is under way — and we’re not saying that’s the case — could be as well.
It’s a tricky strait to navigate even for Gray Sexton, the former chief administrator of the Louisiana Ethics Board: “I guess it would be my thought that you would want to refrain from publishing articles that comment on the fact that apparently the Ethics Board is conducting an investigation of Greg and the LLC that he owns.”
He said it, not us.
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