PINAC Reporter Beats Defamation Suit Filed By Louisiana Clerk
Last year, on June 16th, I made a public records request to the City of Rayne Louisiana for a copy of a delivery slip that was presented to a town employee after the delivery of more than $2000 of culvert pipe to the Rayne city barn. The pipe had been purchased through the city’s Doug Ashley Building Materials Supply Company charge account by Mayor Charles Robichaux’s girlfriend, Peggy King and was being used to fill in drainage ditches in front of property recently purchased by the mayor’s private investment company.
Little did I know that the city’s denial of that record and my fight to force the city to produce it would be so disturbing to city officials there, that they would file a defamation counter suit against me for sharing negative information about city officials and their involvement in this city transaction.
This all began after I saw a video posted to Facebook while scrolling through my timeline. The video showed Rayne city workers installing culvert pipes in front of the Mayor’s newly purchased property on 2nd Street at 6:30 am on the morning of May 27.
The video I watched made me curious about why the pipe was being installed so early in the morning and why the materials for the project were being delivered on the back of a city truck
After watching the video, I began trying to call Mayor Robichaux as soon as city hall opened that day. He would not take my call so I called again, every hour on the hour for the entire day, but he never would not speak to me. I left several messages with the receptionists for both the mayor and the city clerk, explaining in detail the reason for my call. Still, I did not get a call back from anyone for several days.
The city clerk did eventually call me and very carefully explained the culvert installation program in Rayne. She explained, in general terms, how citizens were expected to purchase their own culverts and the city provided the labor and recycled dirt to install them. When I asked her, who paid for the culverts installed in front of the neighbor’s property, her answers became evasive and indirect and she would never come out and tell me who paid for those particular culverts.
After having been involved in governmental accountability for the past seventeen years and having heard this type of evasive song and dance many times before from other public entities, her responses threw up a huge red flag for me. The conversation left me convinced that the city was hiding information from me and I was determined to find out exactly what that was.
I started my investigation into the issue by reaching out to several different retail stores that sell culvert pipe. I asked about their delivery method and how the company could prove that the pipes were delivered if there was ever a question raised. I asked about delivery charges and delivery policies and when I had completed my research, I sent a public records request to the city for a copy of the delivery slip that had been presented to the city upon the delivery of the culvert pipe that the clerk had advised me was delivered to the city barn for safe keeping.
In the first response I received from the city, the clerk told me the city had no invoices, purchase orders, or delivery slips for the pipe that was delivered to the city barn. I wasn’t convinced so I asked again and on the 24th of June the city produced an invoice showing the pipes had initially been billed to the city. The city also produced a Doug Ashey statement that showed the billing of the pipe to the city for delivery followed by a credit to the account posted after I started calling city hall the day of the installation. The city still refused to turn over the delivery slip, claiming it was not a public record.
In February, I filed a public records lawsuit against the clerk to compel the city to produce the delivery slip. There was no doubt in my mind that the document was a public record because it clearly listed the city as having been billed for the pipe. I had hoped the filing of the suit would compel them to turn over the delivery slip without further delay but instead the clerk countersued me for defamation, in her official capacity.
The countersuit came as a surprise to both my attorneys and I and sent the cost of my attorney fees skyrocketing. My attorneys were forced to read over hundreds of pages of information the city’s attorney had filed in an attempt to substantiate the clerk’s defamation claims. They also spent hours drafting our responses and motions to have this case thrown out of court.
At the heart of the clerk’s suit was the fact that I had made posts on a Facebook page I had created called EyesonRayneregarding a fake agenda that was sent out to advertise the Rayne City Council’s regular monthly meeting this past January. The agenda, that was sent out to all of the council members and members of the press, was missing several items that were eventually discussed and acted upon at that January meeting. The clerk was upset that I had referred to the agenda as “fake” and that I had called the subsequent meeting “illegal”.
I am lucky to have found a law firm that wasn’t scared off by the filing of this defamation suit and who worked countless hours to prepare for this trial. It took several attorneys and paralegals in the office to keep up with the case and involved meetings and conference calls to prepare. Our strategy involved filing several motions to strike the defamation suit from the claim.
Our motions to strike, were based on three different legal principles. The first was based on the fact that the clerk, in her official capacity, has no standing to bring a lawsuit into court without the approval and authorization of the governing authority. Our contention was that the clerk needed the approval of the council to even file the suit in the first place and that had not occurred.
The second motion to strike was based on the lack of legal standing for a governmental entity to bring a defamation claim against anyone. The government cannot sue anyone for defamation because you can’t defame a governmental entity.
Our last motion to strike was the one my attorney said was the most interesting to draw up. He spent hours drafting an Anti-SLAPP motion based on a law that was enacted in Louisiana about ten years ago to stop people from abusing a defamation strategy against constitutionally protected speech.
SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”. The Louisiana Anti-SLAPP law allows a judge to throw out a defamation suit when the actions of the defendant are based on constitutionally protected speech. The filing of the motion shifts the burden of proof back to the person making the defamation claim to ensure the claim has merit. Our contention was that this suit was filed against me to silence me and any future negative opinions I may have of a public entity and public employees, a violation of the 1st Amendment.
The trial went on for two days at the Acadia Parish Courthouse. The city called in several witnesses to testify including the mayor, Mr. Monroe – the city employee who signed the delivery slip, a Doug Ashey salesman and store manager, as well as the city’s engineer. We called one witness and of course I had to testify myself.
The testimony in court revealed a number of interesting things about the installation of the culvert pipe in question. We learned that the pipe was initially ordered by the mayor’s girlfriend, Peggy King, who was mysteriously absent from the witness the city produced. Testimony from Tracy Carter, a Doug Ashey salesman and part-time Rayne City employee, showed that Carter had taken the initial order for the pipe from King and because she had requested the pipe be delivered to the city barn, the purchase was accidentally billed to the city for payment.
The mayor testified that he had given up all of the daily responsibilities of his personal investment business when he took office two years ago. He claimed that he has put King in charge of all of the day to day operations of his business but that when he discovered the pipe was billed incorrectly, he spoke with Carter personally to correct the error. The mayor also testified that he had authorized the city clerk to turn over the delivery slip for the culverts in question but instead of just producing them, a decision was made to sue me instead.
Tracy Carter’s testimony revealed that the billing error was caught before the delivery of the pipe but that the correction was not made until the following day to allow the delivery to take place and not delay the installation.
The most interesting testimony came from Mr. Monroe, the city worker who signed the initial delivery slip. He testified that he drove the city truck to Doug Ashey and loaded three pipes on the back of the city truck then delivered and installed them the day before the other pipe were delivered to the city barn from a different Doug Ashey location. His testimony revealed that there was not one, but two delivery slips the city had hidden from me and from the people of Rayne. His testimony also revealed that the city was using public equipment, the city truck and city employees, to tend to the mayor’s personal business.
The case my attorney put on at trial centered around our position that the delivery slip was a public record, that the city still has access to produce the record and that anything that I said or opined about the city and the clerk was not only true but also protected speech. The city’s defense was to try and impeach my testimony by asking me questions about my income and assets. The city’s contention was that the record belonged to the property owner because he did eventually pay for the pipe, even if it was after the city was billed.
During cross examination, I was asked about the income from my YouTube channel, who bought the car I drive, how much money I earn as a writer for PINAC and the nature of a disability I have had since 2008. I was asked about my involvement in actions I have participated in with other activists from around the country, asked about First Amendment Audits, and about my relationship with my boyfriend. This questioning, which lasted for hours, proved to me that this was nothing more than a witch hunt based on their speculation that I am somehow making butt loads of money being an activist and that I was hiding that money from the court when I file my petitions as a pauper. Nothing could be further from the truth but that was the characterization they wanted to present to the judge. It was truly disturbing.
The trial ended with the judge denying my petition for the Mandamus to produce of the record. The judge ruled that the records I had asked for were, in fact, public records but that he could not order them to produce the records because they were no longer in the possession of the city. This decision left the burden of the court costs for this portion of the suit assessed to me.
The judge did grant all of our motions to strike the defamation suit from the record based on the fact that the clerk did not have standing to bring the suit in the first place. He also granted our anti-SLAPP motion, based on the fact that my activities are protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and ordered all of the costs as well as my attorney fees assessed against the clerk for the defamation portion of the claim.
The judge has asked for briefs to be filed by both sides before the he hands down a final ruling on the amount of costs that will be assessed to each party. The city’s risk management attorney, Joy Rabalias, has already advised my attorney that the city is not obligated to pay the judgement and if the council does not agree to pay the assessed costs, shifting the debt back to the clerk personally.
Of course, I made a public records request to the city asking them to produce the last two years of invoices this attorney has presented the taxpayers for payment. I made this request the day after the trial ended and, as usual, the city clerk sent the request off to Rabalias for a response. Of course, the city responded by saying they would produce some of the invoices, but they would not produce any of the invoices that were submitted against the city’s risk management policy, citing attorney/client privilege. Looks like the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Here’s a link to view the invoices that the city did produce from Rabalias. The invoices show that the city is spending tens of thousands of dollars to outsource the clerk’s duty to keep the records in order and to produce them when people ask. This is because the city sends every one of my records requests to this attorney, even the most mundane requests for minutes to public meetings or agendas that have been posted. The response is always the same, the attorney will contend that it will take three days to review and redact information from minutes to public meetings, agendas for public meetings, financial reports, etc. Every record request I make in the City of Rayne is like pulling teeth and it’s done that way to discourage myself and other citizens from exercising our rights to inspect and copy records that belong to the people.
The city is also paying this attorney to watch my Youtube videos and read my posts. What a job! If they paid me to do that, I’d be rich.
I learned so many things in going through this lawsuit but the lesson that stands out for me the most is what I learned about the human element behind the legal filings, briefs and motions. It was disturbing for me to watch the mayor and the city’s hired attorney put the clerk through this losing battle. It was most disturbing when the mayor testified that he had instructed the clerk and Rabalias to produce the delivery slip but instead of producing it and avoiding a lawsuit, Rabalias instead refused production and the mayor authorized the filing of the countersuit against me. It appeared to me that the mayor and Rabalias had thrown the clerk under the bus, by exposing her personally to my suit and advising her to be a part of this silly stunt to silence a member of the public who disagrees with her.
Clearly, the clerk’s feelings were hurt by the opinions I shared and that’s the unfortunate part of all of this. I have always found the clerk to be a very pleasant person who appears to me to be under constant pressure from others to find ways to deny the production of the record. Sadly, the law doesn’t allow me to sue the people who I think are behind the denial, it only allows me to file suit against the city’s custodian of public records, which happens to be the clerk.
My legal team and I are thrilled with the outcome of the trial and I could not be prouder to have been represented by the best civil rights attorneys in the State of Louisiana, The Law Offices of L. Clayton Burgess. Kaliste Saloom III, is the staff attorney who handled all of the filings in this case, drew up a beautifully crafted anti-SLAPP motion and provided the legal jujitsu at trial. And of course, there were other attorneys, paralegals and secretaries working behind the scenes to make it all happen seamlessly.