If last year’s push to buck tradition and hire a consultant to oversee the school system’s insurance selection process was any indication, Hunter Beasley’s tenure as president of the Lafayette Parish School Board and his push to replace the district attorney’s office with a law firm partial to the school board shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
|Photo by Robin May|
|LPSB President Hunter Beasley|
Though he wasn’t president at the time, Beasley single-handedly took it upon himself to find an insurance consultant last year, hand-picking Rina Tikia — a decision that has since erupted in the face of the board and prompted an investigation by the FBI over her attempt to sway the votes of at least two board members with New Orleans Saints tickets.
After replacing Shelton Cobb earlier this year as the board’s president, Beasley has set his sights on a new initiative: Landing a deal with the law firm of Hammonds & Sills as the board’s new general counsel to take the place of the district attorney’s office, which for years has offered its services free-of-charge to the school system.
The reasons the board should proceed cautiously in selecting Hammonds & Sills as its general counsel are many. For one, the firm represents the Louisiana School Board Association, and has already indicated where it will stand when disputes arise between the board and Superintendent Pat Cooper.
Here’s what Hammonds & Sills told former Board President Shelton Cobb in a Nov. 4 letter: “We were retained by the School Board to provide legal representation to it, and the School Board is our client ... we can assure you that we will defend the positions taken by the Board and will do our best to protect the board.”
Also problematic is the firm’s representation of the Louisiana School Board Association. Board member Rae Trahan — a constant antagonist of the superintendent — is on the LSBA’s board of directors, creating another potential conflict-of-interest.
A number of board members have also engaged in the questionable practice of seeking out legal opinions from the firm, without first getting approval from their fellow board members. And what’s strange about this practice is that Hammonds & Sills has proven inconsistent in its billing practices, sometimes charging for their legal advice and sometimes giving it away for free.
At the Dec. 20 meeting, board member Greg Awbrey referenced a call by fellow board member Mark Allen Babineaux to one of the firm’s attorneys. Babineaux was seeking an opinion on whether the board needed a two-thirds majority vote to change a policy, yet his request was never approved by the board. According to Cooper, the school system received a charge for that call, though the opinion was only verbal, meaning nothing was put down in writing. The charge, according to school system records, was for 0.70 of an hour.
Another request for a verbal legal opinion was phoned in by Beasley on Jan. 4, but unlike Babineaux’s request, Hammonds & Sills attorney Jon Guice chose not to charge the school system for the advice he rendered that day. In a Feb. 6 email to Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton, Guice explains:
Mr. Beasley and I briefly discussed the fact that he had 3 requests to put the same item on the agenda of the January 5 meeting. He had a legitimate concern about how to handle this rather unique situation. I did not record any billable time for that conversation which was cut short due to the storm in which I was trying to drive.
I do not appreciate anyone accusing me of wrongdoing or unethical conduct and, hope everyone understands, that I will protect my interest and that of my family, if it continues. I issue legal advice based upon my appreciation of the law regardless of who asks.
While the board is supposed to follow Robert’s Rules of Order — as established in the board’s policies — that has not been the case under Beasley’s presidency. According to Robert’s Rules, a two-thirds vote is required for policy changes. Yet, as the board has pushed for the removal of the DA’s office as its general legal counsel, that requirement has been swept under the rug repeatedly. In fact, by advising Babineaux that it didn’t need a two-thirds vote to change policy, the board was allowed to relieve the DA’s office as general counsel, but without receiving a two-thirds vote as required by Robert’s Rules. That issue has never been resolved, and raises questions as to the validity of the board's 6-3 vote to hire Hammonds & Sills as interim general counsel — following the 5-4 vote to dump the D.A. — for which a contract has still not been finalized.
What’s even more troubling is that at the March 5 meeting, Beasley admitted that the board didn’t always follow Robert’s Rules, which again, is a requirement established in the board’s own policy. At that meeting, attorney Guice — who was present despite not receiving the board's approval to attend — sided with Beasley, saying it’s OK for the board to stray from Robert’s Rules when it sees fit.
The firm has also taken the position that the opinions it renders to the board should not be made available to the public, though the money that pays for those services comes from the public dime.
In a set of emails obtained by The IND in a public records request, attorney Guice writes to the Advocate’s Marsha Sills, saying:
An attorney’s advice and opinion letters are protected by the attorney-client and work product privileges. These privileges expressly extend to public officials and public bodies. Only the board itself as the client may waive that privilege. Accordingly, my advice to the Lafayette Parish School Board is that it not release any opinions given it by legal counsel.
Of course, Beasley is heeding their advice, and in a follow-up email to Sills, he writes:
I have been advised by legal counsel concerning legal opinions requested by the Board. Such opinions are protected from release by the attorney-client privilege and are not subject to release unless the Board votes to waiver that privilege.
According to Louisiana’s public records law, the only reason those opinions shouldn’t be made public is if they involved potential litigation, which would first require the school system having recieved a letter of demand. Though some of the firm’s advice may very well fall under that category, that certainly isn’t the case for all the opinions they've rendered.
Now, Beasley has taken it upon himself to enter into contract negotiations with Hammonds & Sills, without the involvement of the administration.
“This contract is supposed to be negotiated by the superintendent,” Cooper tells The IND. “Hunter Beasley evidently has already done the negotiating.”
In a letter to the board, Cooper warns:
[T]here is concern there has been conversation amounting to negotiating a contract by the Board President, which would appear to be at least against policy and at most unlawful. We will find ourselves in the same position we found ourselves in with the insurance debacle if this proceeds.