St. Charles Herald-Guide

Council votes to reimburse legal fees for public officials cleared of ethics violations

Jonathan Menard - September 6, 2013

The St. Charles Parish Council has added a law that calls for the parish to reimburse legal expenses for some public officials who are cleared in an ethics investigation.

The ordinance, which passed in a 6-3 vote, applies to any appointed officer, board member or elected official who has to retain outside counsel to defend the complaint. St. Charles Parish Councilman Clayton “Snookie” Faucheux authored the ordinance.

“There have been numerous times where people were accused, went to court, found innocent and incurred legal expenses to defend themselves,” he said.

Currently, the fee authorized for reimbursement by the attorney general is $175 an hour, but there is no cap. The law will not be retroactive and will only come into effect in future ethics cases.

Bayou Gauche resident David Wedge urged the Parish Council to approve Faucheux’s ordinance, citing a case involving Luling businessman Neal Clulee. Clulee, a former Planning and Zoning commissioner, spent more than $9,000 to successfully fight an ethics complaint.

The incident began in January 2010 when the parish sent a letter to Clulee advising him that he was in violation of the zoning code when he allowed Phylway Construction, LLC to store trucks, fuel tanks and job trailers on two tracts of land he owns. The land was zoned for residential use and the parish told Clulee that he must move the construction trailers and fueling tanks off of the residential property.

Instead, Clulee submitted an application to the parish’s Planning and Zoning Department requesting a rezoning of the property.

Clulee did not attend a public hearing about the rezone held by the Planning and Zoning Commission, which he was a member of, but his wife, Mary, did speak in favor of the rezone.

The rezone was agreed upon by the Planning and Zoning Commission and put into effect following a vote of the St. Charles Parish Council.

Faucheux says the parish informed the state’s Board of Ethics about the incident. After reviewing the case, the board ruled that the Clulees violated ethics law when they applied for the rezone while Neal Clulee was a member of the commission. The Clulees hired legal representation to fight the charge and argued that they did not enter into a transaction with the commission because applications for rezoning are submitted to the Planning and Zoning Department, not the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The Clulees appealed the Board of Ethic’s decision to a panel of administrative law judges with the Ethics Adjudicatory Board. The Adjudicatory Board agreed with the Clulees, ruling that the laws prohibiting appointees from entering into certain contractual relationships with the parish government do not prohibit a Planning and Zoning Commission member from seeking a zoning change.

Carolyn Schexnaydre, Billy Woodruff and Traci Fletcher were the only council members to vote against the ordinance.

Schexnaydre said that those public officials who are doing nothing wrong should have nothing to worry about as far as ethics complaints are concerned. She also spoke against the fact that taxpayers would be called on to reimburse legal fees.