Behind Closed Doors: Recordings, interviews show HPD chief’s retirement was forced
The retirement of Todd Duplantis as Houma’s police chief, which was announced in June and occurred in August, was at the time represented by parish officials as a pressure-free, voluntary decision.
In-depth interviews along with audio recordings and documents obtained by The Times contradict those claims.
(To listen to a recording on June 2 from a Claudet and Duplantis conversation, CLICK HERE)
They instead suggest that Parish President Michel Claudet made false public statements about Duplantis’ departure after telling the former chief behind closed doors that he was being terminated, later acceding to a request from Duplantis that he instead be allowed to retire.
Claudet also told Duplantis it was the Terrebonne Parish Council that wanted him to resign. But interviews with parish council members indicate this was not the case.
Duplantis now acknowledges that he did not disclose the true reasons behind his retirement when it was announced.
“I was still under the reins of Claudet, still an employee,” Duplantis said, when pressed for an explanation. “Since I was still employed and could be terminated at any time, I did not want to cause any more friction.”
Claudet has been far less forthcoming. He has refused to address the issue despite e-mailed requests for answers that include his own quotes from audio recordings contradicting his public statements.
The evidence presents a rare inside look at how a matter of public importance was handled behind closed doors by officials, then presented as something entirely different in the open. It is significant as well because of the degree to which it presents a side of Michel Claudet that runs counter to the benevolent, measured style the public is used to seeing.
Good-government advocates and ethicists – while refusing to comment on specifics regarding the Duplantis matter and unable to address its veracity – and questions it raises – acknowledge that questions it raises are important to evaluating the relationship between relationship between government officials and the public they serve.
“There is a public trust issue,” said Robert Travis Scott, director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a Baton Rouge non-profit that advocates for accountability in government, addressing the question of what happens when public officials say one thing publicly but do another in private. “If there is something that a public official believes is private and should be kept private, they should say so. What you do not do is hide the truth. What you do not do is deceive.”
The current conflict is deeply rooted in prior issues surrounding the HPD, which became public knowledge in 2008 when its chief, the late Pat Boudreaux, was placed on administrative leave following allegations of sexual harassment and misuse of police department equipment.
Michel Claudet – then a freshman parish president – made a lieutenant named Todd Duplantis interim chief of the HPD, an agency consultants identified as “out of control” and devoid of leadership and accountability.
One year later, in 2009, a state law was enacted at Claudet’s request authorizing Terrebonne Parish presidents to hire and fire public service chiefs at will, taking the positions out of Louisiana’s civil service system.
Duplantis, meanwhile, put new policies into effect – largely at Claudet’s request – that rankled some officers and staff, while winning praise from others.
A settlement was reached between the parish and Boudreaux’s accusers but he remained on leave, resigning in 2011, shortly before his death.
Prior to that time other lawsuits and complaints from HPD employees dogged the department and Claudet’s administration.
Duplantis himself was cleared of allegations brought by employees similar to some of those relating to Boudreaux and, in 2011, he was unanimously confirmed by the parish council as the HPD’s chief, at Claudet’s request.
The law placing the chief’s position at the will of the parish president became a subject of debate in 2012. Among speakers appearing before a legislative committee seeking to have it repealed was Kyle Faulk, an HPD sergeant who, like many officers, believed the chief’s job should be subject to civil service oversight, ostensibly removing politics from the job. State House Rep. Gordon Dove ended up re-writing the law, giving it an expiration date of 2016, at which time it would no longer apply.
Claudet made statements at that time indicating he would keep Duplantis as his chief through 2016, when his own tenure would end due to term limits.
Among changes Duplantis made in the HPD, around the same time as the highly publicized debate on the bill, was a new schedule for Faulk, and changes in job responsibility.
Faulk maintained that the changes – which included being moved from a day schedule to one that rotated between day and night shifts and interfered with his child visitation agreement – were punishment for his public criticism of the law.
Accommodations could not be reached and Faulk took his complaints to U.S. District Court in New Orleans, and a three-year odyssey through the federal system.
The parish itself was removed from the suit by judicial order, leaving only Duplantis to defend against the allegations. A parish-paid attorney, David Allen, represented Duplantis. Parish ordinances contain a provision that, in most cases, taxpayers foot the bill for counsel and court awards for employees in most cases.
In July, 2014 attorney Courtney Alcock, acting on behalf of the parish, sent a request for an opinion to the Louisiana Attorney General, asking if that indemnity clause applied in a case such as the one brought by Faulk.
A few months later, according to a spokesman for Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, the request for an opinion was withdrawn.
Duplantis lost the case, and the parish appealed an initial award for Faulk of nearly $500,000. A new jury trial was granted, and in April 2015, Faulk was awarded $250,000 in damages.
Faulk had the right to appeal that decision, seeking more money. But the parish, which had already spent more than $90,000 defending the case, sought to halt any further action. A settlement for $300,000, eliminating any further court action, was proposed. The council was to meet in an executive session on June 1
“HE SAID HE WOULD TERMINATE ME”
Duplantis had sought his own legal counsel – attorney Danna Schwab – and she was distressed by a request sent that morning by a parish attorney.
Duplantis was asked to sign a document accepting personal responsibility for the settlement, if a court or an attorney general’s opinion found that the parish indemnity provision did not apply.
The document stated that an attorney general’s opinion had been sought. It did not say that the parish – a year earlier – had canceled the request for that opinion.
Schwab had a firm response to the request made of her client.
Duplantis would not sign any such document, Schab said in an e-mail to parish attorneys “as it has always been his understanding, as with all parish cases, that the parish would not only defend him, but also indemnify him for damages.”
That night the council held its executive session, approving the settlement.
The lone vote against it was from Councilman Greg Hood. No comments were made by council members when the vote was taken, once they returned to open session.
The next morning, June 2, Claudet summoned Duplantis to his office.
“That was when [Claudet] said he would terminate me,” said Duplantis, who recounted the experience of begging Claudet to allow him to retire instead.
“I asked him to give me until Aug. 6 so that I could make my 30 years,” Duplantis said. “I wanted to go out with dignity.”
Duplantis said Claudet told him council members would be consulted to determine if retirement was acceptable and the two met again on June 3.
COUNCIL IS BLAMED
The June 3 conversation was recorded by Duplantis without Claudet’s knowledge, a practice that Louisiana law permits.
On the recording, the ex-chief asks Claudet to repeat his claim that it was the council’s desire for him to leave his post.
CLAUDET: Based upon the conversation, the council indicated that was part of the deal; that you were going.
DUPLANTIS: That was part of the deal, me retiring?
CLAUDET: That you are going to have to go … I have understood it as being immediate.
Claudet goes on to say that he talked to five council members the night of June 2, and others that day.
Duplantis, according to the arrangement Claudet claimed was made with the council members, agrees to turn in his letter of resignation with the target date to be Aug. 6, and that in the interim he will take his vacation and also help Claudet select his replacement.
Council members interviewed over the past two weeks, however, say they have no recollection of such a conversation with Claudet.
Councilman Danny Babin, who is now running against State Rep. Gordon Dove for Claudet’s post, denied any knowledge. The Duplantis decision, so far as he is concerned, was totally voluntary.
“It was a low point in his life and his career after losing a lawsuit and not having the confidence of the people,” Babin said of Duplantis. “The man was smart enough to see the handwriting on the wall … If Todd wanted to stay, he could.”
Councilwoman Beryl Amedee said she does not recall such a conversation either.
“I would probably be the last council member that [Claudet] would bring in or consult with,” she said. “A conversation where Michel asked my opinion or told me that it was his opinion, or a consensus of multiple council members, I have no recall of that.”
“THAT IS FALSE”
Councilwomen Christa Duplantis-Prather and Arlanda Williams also said they had no such conversation with Claudet.
“I never asked for him to be terminated,” Duplantis-Prather said. “All of a sudden, I just found out he is retiring.”
Councilman Red Hornsby gave a similar response.
“Michel did not discuss anything with me about Todd’s resignation or firing or whatever you want to call it,” Hornsby said. “And I did not say that one of the things for settling that [Faulk lawsuit] was Todd resigning. That is false.”
Hornsby is among council members who take umbrage at any suggestion that they were involved.
“He should not be saying I said something I didn’t,” Hornsby said of the parish president.
Some council members gave hints that Duplantis’ departure may have been discussed at the executive session, but without saying so in any direct way.
Claudet has been asked to disclose when and where he met with council members to discuss Duplantis leaving his job as part of the settlement approval, but has not responded.
Claudet and Duplantis met again on June 5, a Friday, with Claudet expressing displeasure with a planned HTV telecast of a panel discussion on the settlement.
The conversation focused as well on how Duplantis’ retirement would be announced, with particular attention paid to which local media outlets would be in a position to announce it.
“Did the police chief go too far, should he be removed, did the parish – all he is doing is trying to stir the pot,” Claudet tells Duplantis, referring to HTV owner and broadcast personality Martin Folse and the questions he submitted in preparation for the broadcast. “I have heard he is trying to get Kyle Falk to get the (chief’s) position … This should not be on a TV station. There is nothing I can do to prevent this ***hole from doing this. That is none of their f***ing business. The police department is better than it has ever been. The only one who is causing a problem is Martin Folse and Kyle Faulk. The question becomes I think we should probably get out that you are going to be retiring.”
“PART OF THE DEAL”
In that conversation Duplantis again asks Claudet for reassurance that it was the council’s desire that he depart.
“That was part of the council’s part of their agreement to settle, it was for me to retire?” Duplantis asks.
“Yes,” Claudet responds. “That was part of the deal.”
Duplantis then asks if it was Hood, who vied with him for the job of chief when he was a member of the department that was “pushing the deal.”
Claudet then confirms the suspicion, telling Duplantis that Hood said when cops dent a car they’ve got to pay.
The discussion then turned to specifics about the retirement announcement.
“Do you want to wait until Monday to send in the resignation?” Claudet asks. “That way it’s not gossip all over the weekend. The Houma Courier will not pick it up until the next day whereas HTV will get it that night, which pisses me off.”
Adopting an avuncular tone, Claudet reassures Duplantis that he is doing the right thing.
“You are going to be so much happier,” he says, noting that the chances of Duplantis remaining chief after Jan. 1, when the new parish president – either Dove or Babin – is sworn in.
Duplantis said he is adjusting well to life in retirement meanwhile, is coming to terms with the idea that his time at the HPD helm was cut short and trying not to dwell on negative feelings about what he now sees as manipulation by Claudet.
“I am happy with my accomplishments, where I brought the police department and where it came from, the relationships we have made with the community,” Duplantis said. “I am not looking to grind an axe. I wish the new chief, Dana Coleman, well in his job. I am having a good life now in retirement with my family, with my grandkids. As for Mr. Claudet, it is unfortunate that he ended up not trusting me and threw me out to the wolves but I wish him well also. I just want to set the record straight.”
Claudet clearly stated to reporters from multiple media outlets including The Times back in June that the departure of Duplantis was not connected to the Faulk suit or the settlement.
On Sept. 30, four months later, Claudet gave a response closer to what PAR Louisiana’s Robert Scott and ethicists suggest might have been acceptable.
“It is the longstanding policy of TPCG to not publically discuss personnel matters or current or past litigation,” Claudet said.
But attempts to have him account for the disparity between what was related to the public, and what the recordings reveal, continue to be ignored. There are no suggestions that laws have been violated, but ethicists say public officials owe the people they serve something more than mere legal adherence.
Jim Brunet, a North Carolina State University professor affiliated with the Washington D.C.-based American Society For Public Administration as an ethics expert, concurs with Scott.
Like Scott, he would not offer direct evaluation of the Claudet and Duplantis situation. But he agreed after a lengthy presentation of material prepared for this article that the questions raised can give rise to important discussions on ethical behavior of elected officials.
“That’s one of the core features of public administration is the need for accountability,” Brunet said. “If we don’t have a clear connection back to the citizenry then we don’t have basically a democratic system. When I teach ethics I describe following the law as the first step of many steps in being a public administrator. There are other things, being truthful and honest and a person of integrity that are not codified in state laws.”