A Baton Rouge judge refused Monday to lift a 4-month-old gag order in a whistle-blower lawsuit that accuses contractors of giving kickbacks to state officials for contracts to elevate homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Jill Craft, who represents two former Shaw Group employees who filed the suit last year, argued during a court hearing Monday that the gag order is “unconstitutionally broad” and there is “no identifiable basis” for it.
“I don’t think there’s any reason for a gag order,” she told state District Judge Wilson Fields, who imposed the order May 29. “I don’t think they (the state) like anybody talking about (the suit).”
Special Assistant Attorney General John Dunlap, who represents the state Office of Community Development in the case, countered that the gag order is necessary.
“We are concerned about the possible tainting of the jury pool,” he argued. “We don’t want the case tried in the press.”
Roy Cheatwood, an attorney for Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure Inc., added that Craft’s prior statements to the media have been “prejudicial.”
“This (gag order) is constitutional,” he told the judge, noting that the case is not sealed and court hearings are open to the public and press.
Fields, who noted that a reporter for The Advocate was in attendance at the hearing, denied Craft’s motion to lift the gag order.
“This case is going to be tried in this court,” he stated.
The judge’s May 29 order says that “no party in this case or associated with the case is to have any communication with any media outlet whatsoever.”
Craft has asked the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal to review Fields’ order and throw it out, according to records at the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court’s Office.
Former Shaw employees Christy Weiser and Thomas Pierson claim in their suit against Shaw and OCD that they suffered on-the-job retaliation for raising their allegations of kickbacks in the $750 million Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
Shaw monitors the federally funded home-elevation program for the state.
State officials later sued Weiser and Pierson in federal court, alleging they stole state documents containing confidential homeowner information. State officials also claimed the confidential data was made available to the news media. A federal judge refused to sanction the pair.
Craft has said her clients stole nothing.
Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure and OCD have denied Weiser’s and Pierson’s allegations.
Weiser resigned from Shaw in February 2011. Craft has said Pierson was fired for talking to the media about the suit.
Shaw hired Pierson and Weiser to work in the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, their suit states. OCD and Shaw pressured Weiser and Pierson, and ordered them to give certain contractors preferential treatment, the suit says.