LSU board appeals fines in public records case filed by The Advocate

An attorney for The Advocate argued to a state appeals court Tuesday, on the anniversary of the newspaper’s lawsuit against the LSU Board of Supervisors, that the school violated Louisiana’s public records law by not disclosing the names of applicants in its secret presidential search.

But an attorney representing the LSU board and its former chairman countered no such violation occurred, and he insisted the board should not have been held in contempt of court in August and fined $500 a day for not complying with a judge’s order last April to turn over the records.

The board remained in contempt for four months until turning the records over to the judge, state District Judge Janice Clark, last fall. The records remain under seal with Clark.

They were given to her under a settlement between the board and The Advocate and The Times-Picayune, which joined The Advocate’s suit.

LSU’s presidential search ended 13 months ago with the selection of F. King Alexander, former president of California State University in Long Beach.

Lori Mince, who represents The Advocate and The Times-Picayune in the case, reminded a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal on Tuesday that LSU agreed in 2001 to release applications for positions at the school if a request was made.

That agreement was part of a settlement of a suit The Advocate had filed against the university to get information about candidates for the school’s athletic director post.

Jimmy Faircloth, who represents the LSU board and former Chairman Hank Danos, said a Dallas consulting company hired by the board to help in its search advised that potential candidates would be extremely leery about applying if their identities would be made public.

“They were trying to do it right,” Faircloth said of the LSU board and Danos. “It absolutely was not a conspiracy of silence.”

The 1st Circuit panel did not indicate when a decision would be handed down.

The panel did not tip its hand in how it might rule, but Judge Page McClendon did say to Mince, “Ultimately, you may well be entitled to those records.”

The other two judges hearing the case were John Pettigrew and Mike McDonald.

The appeals court panel essentially held a two-part hearing, first dealing with the merits of the records dispute, then addressing the contempt citation and fines.

Faircloth said those fines now total $120,000, but argued the board had no choice but to withhold the records from the newspapers because the board intended to appeal Clark’s order.

“There was no willful disobedience,” he said. “No disrespect to the court.”

McClendon appeared sympathetic at times to the board’s predicament.

“Had you produced those records, the cat’s out of the bag,” she said. “You were caught in a trick bag.”

Mince said the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected the board’s request for a stay of Clark’s order.

“That is the reason we have stays,” she argued. “If you are ordered to do something by a court you must do it, unless you’re granted a stay … or a suspensive appeal.”

The Advocate, which has been seeking the records associated with LSU’s presidential search since February 2013, filed suit April 1, 2013, after the board refused to release them. The Times-Picayune joined the case a week later.