Cooper still battling Lafayette board over legal counsel

Superintendent says school board didn’t have right to hire new legal counsel

“As far as I’m concerned, they’ve not been hired because no one except the superintendent can hire them.” Pat Cooper, superintendent

Superintendent Pat Cooper said Friday he plans to challenge the School Board’s recent hiring of interim general counsel to replace the District Attorney’s Office even though District Attorney Mike Harson said he has no plans to continue to serve the School Board.

Cooper said he doesn’t think the board followed its own policies or state law in making the transition in legal counsel, but Harson and the Attorney General’s Office are saying otherwise.

In February, the board hired the firm Hammond, Sills, Adkins & Guice as its interim general counsel until it finds a permanent replacement for the District Attorney’s Office, which provided general counsel services at no cost to the board.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’ve not been hired because no one except the superintendent can hire them,” Cooper said of the firm. “I don’t plan on doing any negotiation with them, nor do I plan to pay them, including the time last Wednesday when (attorney) Jon Guice was there for services of general counsel.”

The firm, with offices in Baton Rouge and Monroe, currently acts as the board’s special counsel, handling some types of employee litigation. On Tuesday, the board’s general counsel search committee meets for the first time. Cooper is on the committee in an advisory capacity.

Cooper said Friday he’s not opposed to the board hiring interim counsel but claims the board acted improperly in hiring the firm. He also objected to the firm’s attendance at the board’s March 5 meeting because there was no contract for the firm’s interim general counsel services.

“I know they voted to approve Hammonds & Sills as interim counsel, but they don’t do the hiring until we negotiate a contract and sign a contract,” Cooper said.

Harson, the district attorney, and School Board President Hunter Beasley disagree with Cooper’s assertions.

Beasley said Friday that Cooper made his objections known to him in a text message sent over the weekend, but Cooper didn’t outline the specifics of how the board violated state law.

“If we pass something, we expect the superintendent to follow through with it,” Beasley said. “If we’re doing something wrong, let us know. It’s been almost a month now since we’ve hired them.”

Beasley confirmed he requested Guice to attend the meeting and said he expects Guice or another representative of the firm to attend the board’s meeting on Wednesday.

Harson said Friday his office’s services to the board ended in November when the board voted to relieve the DA’s Office as its general counsel.

“I feel we could have walked away from it then,” Harson said. “We elected to stay when we probably didn’t have to, but I didn’t want them to be unrepresented, so we stayed until they found representation.”

Cooper said the board’s actions could also be in violation of state law that he said requires the board to notify the Attorney General’s Office and receive approval when it decides to relieve the DA’s Office as its general counsel. Cooper said Friday that no resolution had been sent to the Attorney General’s Office.

However, Laura Gerdes Colligan, spokeswoman for the AG’s Office, said neither resolutions nor attorney general approval are necessary for school boards to hire general counsel or to relieve the District Attorney’s Office as general counsel. She added that she wasn’t aware of any attorney general permission needed to hire interim general counsel; however, the law does require AG approval of special counsel.

On Friday, Harson said the AG’s Office had been informed of the change and considered his office relieved of its duties, effective as of the board’s vote in November.

“We spoke to the attorney general, and they didn’t seem to make an issue of the resolution,” Harson said. He questioned why Cooper was trying to make an issue of the board’s decision.

“I don’t think he has the authority to stop them from hiring counsel,” Harson said. “If he thinks it’s improper, maybe there are avenues he could take.”

The issue is one of a number of matters in the past year pitting some board members against Cooper over authority on hiring, firing and contracts.

Last year, the board approved the hiring of an insurance consultant to assist in the selection of an insurance plan administrator. The consultant began working without a contract, and the board later rejected the consultant’s recommendation of an administrator. The board voted in December to restart its selection of an administrator using its own volunteer employee insurance advisory committee. Last month, the consultant sent the board a demand letter for payment of $200,000.

Cooper said he feared the board would find itself in a similar predicament if it continued to use the law firm’s services for general counsel without a contract.

“When the board starts meddling in administrative issues, it comes back to bite us every time,” Cooper said.

Harson said he assigned Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton to work with the law firm through the transition, bringing them up to date on certain matters.

Cooper, meanwhile, said Hamilton has been available to school district staff this past week, and the superintendent said he asked Hamilton to continue to act as general counsel.

Informed of that comment, Harson said Friday: “We’ve been asked to leave, we’re leaving. … I’m through with this.”