The watchdog role of newspapers and other media is a long-established tool for ensuring that public officials are held to accountability by those whom they govern.
Holding the powerful accountable need not always be interpreted as immediate criticism of those persons and institutions. Rather, the focus on governmental action can serve to instill confidence in those agencies and institutions under scrutiny, and those who lead them.
It is fashionable of late to aim shots at the messenger, to discredit those who inform the public when they don’t play along with the spin, and work hard at exposing inconsistencies.
Last month I filed a public records request with the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government for copies of legal bills sent by its parish attorney. Specifically, we asked for bills attached to one file number held by the law firm which services the parish. We were interested in the hours billed at the specified rates and nothing more. The request was made because Parish President Gordon Dove assured me – in a telephone conversation – that the parish, through its attorneys, is living up to its duty of evaluating coastal permits filed for by energy exploration companies over many years, and whether companies engaged in such work actually did seek the permits required. Current controversy concerning lawsuits filed against such companies by other parishes was what prompted the request. Had the parish followed what the public records law in Louisiana generally says, there would be nothing more to be said most likely. When the request was made, there was no suggestion of wrong-doing by anyone.
To their credit, parish officials responded quickly, in accordance with the law. However, their response was not what we expected.
The records sought would not be provided. A later, more detailed letter from Parish Attorney Julius Hebert presented the parish’s position in great detail. It was obvious that a great deal of time and effort had been expended to clearly make that position understood, which is in many ways laudable.
A key element of the parish’s refusal to provide the records is that their disclosure might tip off oil companies who may be the subject of litigation in the future how serious – or not – the parish has been regarding the task of seeking to hold them accountable if they have done wrong. The parish has noted that – despite claims by Parish President Gordon Dove to the contrary, and the overall pulse of local public opinion, there could be an action of some sorts against the companies. In a general sense this is understandable. But that doesn’t make it any more defensible. But negotiation done to avoid litigation does not account to a serious potential for pending litigation. The Louisiana Constitution says viewing public records is a right of the people. State law made by legislators echoes that principal. Our state’s courts have repeatedly stated that in cases where there is doubt as to whether records can be repressed, it is their responsibility to decide in favor of disclosure.
The parish’s dogged refusal to provide these records now raises more questions. Is the parish not doing as the parish president has said, and the bills amount to a tiny expenditure of time and legal hours? If the probe is as thorough as the parish president suggests, how much money is being spent and if it’s a lot, a question will of necessity emerge, which is why attorneys are doing work that could ostensibly be done by non-attorneys?
Questions are not accusations, they are merely questions. Unanswered questions can create a need for the former.
Because the parish has refused to provide what we believe is properly requested according to the law, we took the step of filing a complaint with the district attorney, as statute allows. District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. was not comfortable enforcing in this case, because he is involved with some of the issues the request is concerned with. He has referred the complaint to Assumption-Ascension District Attorney Ricky Babin, an impartial and honorable man who has taken the matter under review. We don’t know what specific conclusion he shall come to, but are confident that we are on strong ground.
Time – and Mr. Babin – will tell.
Stay tuned. •