By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
COVINGTON – The continuing difference of opinion between two of the highest ranking public officials in St. Tammany Parish over legal representation may be viewed by some as a power struggle to simply see who is right.
But Parish President Pat Brister and District Attorney Warren Montgomery both contend they cannot ignore what they believe is the right thing in the situation—even though a state judge will soon prove one of them wrong.
Montgomery is again appealing a judge’s ruling that allows the Parish Council to hire outside counsel. He said he “cannot leave this alone” since he believes the Home Rule Charter clearly orders him to be the legal representation for the parish. Additionally, he said, he is standing up for the right of the people who voted in December, 2015 to side with him on the matter.
Brister, on the other hand, said it is a “clear conflict of interest” for the district attorney to be legal representation for the parish when “so many issues we face involve complicated matters where he cannot defend both sides.”
One of Montgomery’s early battles since becoming D.A. was to take on a very old tradition by the Parish Council and parish president. It was the ability to hire outside legal counsel for many of the issues that came before them which required a lawyer.
For nearly 30 years, former District Attorney Walter Reed never got in the way of parish council members or the parish president when the need for outside counsel was sought.
But after Montgomery took office in January, 2015 he took issue with the Parish Council and the way they had interpreted the Home Rule Charter, which he believes is very clear in stating that the 22nd Judicial District Attorney must be the legal representation for the parish president or Parish Council.
He pressed the issue with the Parish Council to stop hiring outside counsel and eventually went to court to settle the matter after the two sides met for many months trying to resolve the matter, failing to forge a compromise.
The Parish Council tried to gain support for their side of the argument by allowing the voters to weigh-in at the ballot box, but in December, 2015 voters sided with Montgomery and rejected the Parish Council measure that would have given them approval to hire their own legal counsel.
Since that time Montgomery has taken the case to the courts in the form of a lawsuit, however, the courts have sided with the Parish Council at each ruling. The most recent one was still not enough to lay the matter to rest and the district attorney is appealing again, this time to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The latest appeal continues the intense difference Brister and Montgomery have, however, both public officials insist they are following their conscience to do what they believe is “the right thing.”
Brister said there are more matters than the public could believe where it would be a conflict of interest for Montgomery to defend the Parish Council.
“So many situations involve the D.A.’s office in lawsuits, or matters where they are connected to the Parish Council interests,” she said. “It is a clear conflict for him to represent the Parish Council in many matters—that is why we cannot sit back and allow him to do this.”
Brister is not shy about allowing her personal feelings to show in the long battle, now heading towards two years, and a dispute that is costing the parish a lot of money.
“We have easily spent several hundred thousand dollars fighting this from the parish side, and I know the district attorney has spent a lot of money fighting it as well,” she said. “But we have to defend it and spend the money and we have to hire outside lawyers to do it.
“The whole thing is so frustrating and unfortunate and while I understand Mr. Montgomery feels strongly about why he needs to pursue this, I have strong feelings about this too,” she said. “He said that he needed a legal opinion from a judge to tell him what to do and then he would leave it alone. But so far three judges have sided with the parish so I guess he doesn’t like the answer he is getting.”
Montgomery said the interpretation of the law from the Home Rule Charter is one issue, but he also does not understand how the Parish Council can go against the will of the people after the December, 2015 vote.
“They are clearly refusing to do what the people want,” Montgomery stated. “So we have to fight for the will of the people and cannot leave this alone. We have to finish what we started.”
Montgomery also said that 25 other district attorneys in the state have signed on to his appeal with the Louisiana Supreme Court, another point that Brister bristles at.
“He is citing the fact 25 other DA’s have sided with him,” she said. “But he doesn’t represent them. I resent that he is fighting this partly because of what they are standing for and he is doing it with a tremendous amount of our taxpayer money.”
The Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany (CCST) also filed a brief with the Louisiana Supreme Court supporting Montgomery’s appeal.