Merrill’s past drug conviction threatens future
“My people elected me without any opposition. They think I’m doing a good job.” DAVID JOHN MERRILL, New Iberia councilman
NEW IBERIA — New Iberia Councilman David John Merrill is facing possible removal from office for a 2003 conviction on drug charges.
Merrill, who was elected to his second term last year without opposition, did not want to discuss the case in detail, but a friend said the old criminal charge is a relic of a life the councilman has long since left behind.
Still, Merrill’s conviction threatens his future on the City Council.
Sixteenth Judicial District Attorney Phil Haney’s office filed a petition last month to remove Merrill from office, citing a provision in the state constitution that bars a convicted felon from holding an elected position unless 15 years have passed or the governor has issued a pardon.
According to the petition, Merrill pleaded guilty in April 2003 to charges of drug possession, though the specifics of the case are not known because he successfully had the court record expunged in 2005 after completing a rehabilitation program offered through the local court system.
Haney said this week that he has no reason to doubt that Merrill has turned his life around, but state law requires him to step down from office.
Merrill, who was first elected in 2008, said Thursday that he plans to fight his removal in court.
“I’m just going to trust in God,” he said. “... My people elected me without any opposition. They think I’m doing a good job.”
Haney said no one lodged a formal complaint against Merrill, but his office received some information “that made us look into it more thoroughly.”
Merrill said he believes he knows who pushed the issue but declined to say.
“I’m not going to go into it. It was jealousy,” Merrill said.
He did not want to discuss the case in detail, but a longtime friend, John Allen, said he believes Merrill should be allowed to keep his council seat even if there might be a technical violation of the law.
He said Merrill is an effective councilman who is active in the church and community.
“He learned from his past and he went on to try and do the right thing,” Allen said. “They should let that go. He’s been in office for five years.”
Merrill’s past conviction would likely not have even been an issue before January, when a state Supreme Court decision opened the door for the removal of sitting elected officials for convictions from before they took office.
The state election code stipulates that challenges to a candidate’s fitness for office should be made within seven days after the close of qualifying, the period in which candidates sign up to run for office.
But the state Supreme Court ruled in January that the election code does not trump the state constitution’s ban on convicted felons holding office and that a challenge can be brought even after a candidate is elected.
“Now the rule of law is you can bring it any time,” Haney said.
The state Supreme Court decision came in a case out of neighboring St. Mary Parish, where Baldwin Alderman Tony Gibson — elected in 2010 — was forced to step down for a 1997 conviction for carnal knowledge of a juvenile.
That case came to play earlier this year when the St. Landry Parish District Attorney Earl Taylor’s office filed a removal petition against St. Landry Parish School Board Member Quincy Richard Sr.
Richard had been forced to step down from office after a 2004 plea to filing false records in an investigation of grade- and degree-buying at Southern University.
But he had the case expunged and regained his board seat in a 2006 election and was re-elected in 2010.
A state judge in June ruled that Richard had to leave office because of the 2004 conviction.
Richard appealed, but the issue of the state charge is now moot because he has since been convicted on an unrelated federal bribery charge for asking a candidate for school superintendent to pay $5,000 in exchange for Richard’s vote supporting him for the job.
Haney said expungements, as in the case of Richard and Merrill, present a particular problem for anyone who might want to challenge a candidate on the grounds of a felony conviction, because the record of that conviction would not be available to the general public.
Haney said he is researching the possibility of legislation that would create a statewide database to check the criminal history of candidates when they sign up to run for office, with some trigger that would alert a district attorney’s office or some other agency of possible violations.