Some parish attorneys have busy side gigs

More than half of the full-time lawyers who work in the East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney’s Office maintain a private side practice, an arrangement that has come under scrutiny over the years and could take center stage again this week at a hearing to determine if the city-parish’s top lawyer keeps her job.

Some of the attorneys seem to handle low-profile, less time-consuming cases in their side gigs, taking on just divorces or inheritance issues. But other times, like with Assistant Parish Attorney Tedrick Knightshead, who maintains a robust criminal defense practice, the work appears far more demanding and could raise questions about conflicts of interest.

Embattled Parish Attorney Mary Roper herself — the highest paid employee in her office — handles outside work along with her supervisory duties for the city. Council members who have grown critical of Roper’s leadership are expected to press her about this at a hearing Wednesday, questioning whether she and her full-time employees are truly handling full-time work loads given their outside sidelines.

A faction of council members have said they’ve lost confidence in Roper and are seeking her removal. The full council could vote Wednesday on Roper’s future after the hearing in the City Hall council chambers.

For her part, Roper said she and her lawyers often work in excess of 40 hours per week and rejected the notion that any private practice clients they take on could end up presenting conflicts of interest for the city-parish. The Parish Attorney’s Office employs 28 full-time attorneys, with salaries ranging from $50,000 to $120,000. At least 17 of the attorneys maintain private practices, according to vague conflict disclosure forms they sign quarterly.

The disclosure forms require the attorneys to list the “broad categories of law” performed in their private practice, but does not ask for a client list. They do require them to check a box stating that they are not representing clients with a “conflict or any interest adverse to the City-Parish or its agencies.”

An Advocate review of case loads in the 19th Judicial District Court found that, occasionally, the government attorneys used their private practice to defend people arrested by the Baton Rouge Police Department. The office is the lawyer for the Metro Council, the Mayor’s Office and the departments, agencies and boards affiliated with the city-parish government, including representing the police department in lawsuits and other matters.

Knightshead, employed by the city-parish since 2005, has signed on to at least 99 cases in the 19th Judicial District for private practice clients since the beginning of 2013. The vast majority were felony criminal defense cases, and at least 34 of those cases were initiated by an arrest from the Baton Rouge Police Department.

Several of his defense cases were drug charges; however, some dealt with more serious allegations, including at least two clients facing second-degree murder charges, which are generally more time consuming for a defense attorney. Others were charged with racketeering and money laundering.

Since February 2013, according to docket entries, Knightshead made at least 144 appearances on behalf of his private clients in the parish court house, which generally holds court during office hours and on business days.

In an email, Knightshead said he is often working nights and weekends for the parish attorney’s office, which is why he can afford to use business hours for his private practice.

For example, Knightshead said he recently took a deposition for the City of Baton Rouge in Slidell that started at 5 p.m. and ended at 7:30 p.m. He said he was not compensated for travel or overtime.

“Because I must perform City-Parish work outside of the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. time frame I am able to perform my tasks for my private office and still meet the requirements that I work 80 hours in a pay period for the Parish Attorney’s office,” Knightshead said.

Knightshead also took issue with his government salary. At $60,172 per year, Knightshead is on the lower end of the pay grade; however, he is eligible for the parish’s generous retirement benefits.

“It is sad to say, but it would be almost impossible to employ an attorney capable of handling our cases for our salaries if they were not able to supplement their income with a private practice,” Knightshead said.

Roper said there is no conflict of interest for Knightshead or other lawyers who handle defense work because the criminal cases in the 19th JDC come from the state of Louisiana, through the district attorney, and the city police serve only as witnesses in that court. She also noted that no city-parish employee is rendering judgment on a case, as they would in their capacity as City Court prosecutors.

But the potential awkwardness of Knightshead’s dual roles can be seen in at least one case he is handling in his capacity as a city-parish lawyer. As recently as May 29, Knightshead was enrolled as co-counsel for the city, defending the Baton Rouge Police Department in a lawsuit alleging that officers used excessive force. At the same time, in his role as criminal defense attorney, Knightshead might need to question the veracity of police officers’ statements when he is defending a client.

Dane Ciolino, Loyola law professor and author of a Louisiana legal ethics blog, said potential conflicts for attorneys must be decided on a case-by-case basis, agreeing with Roper that her attorneys would not be strictly barred from criminal defense work at the 19th JDC.

But he said it would be improper for an assistant parish attorney to be in a situation where he or she is cross examining a Baton Rouge police officer, casting doubt on their testimony, in defense of a private client.

Michelle Ghetti, ethics professor at Southern University Law Center, said the parish attorney’s office is effectively a law firm, and law firms shouldn’t take on conflicting clients without written waivers from the clients.

Government lawyers, she said, are privy to information that could be helpful to a client who is in a legal battle with the government.

“There are two things that lawyers owe to their client: loyalty and confidentiality,” she said. “Does this person have information that they’ve obtained as a government attorney that they can now be used against the government to benefit the individual client? Or do they have information they obtained from the private individual that could be used for the government against the individual?”

Ciolino noted that some cities and parishes have created policies barring their attorneys from litigating for their private practice in the same parish.

Jefferson Parish attorneys, beginning in 2010, were prohibited from having outside practices entirely. In the city of New Orleans, only traffic and municipal court attorneys are authorized to have outside practices.

Roper described her own private practice as “very limited.” Both Roper and Assistant Parish Attorney Gwendolyn Brown do work for the Louisiana Appellate Project, writing appeals for indigent defendants who were convicted at trial.

Brown is a supervisor for the nonprofit organization, and since 2013 been enrolled as counsel for at least 16 cases filed at the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from East Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes, that were not related to her job with the city-parish.

For the same time period, Roper was enrolled as counsel for 34 cases in the First Circuit that were not related to the city-parish. She said the part-time work is performed during the evening and on weekends, and mostly involved “reading, researching and writing.” She said she rarely is required to appear in court for the appeals.

Roper receives a salary of $120,994, and Brown earns $77,639 from the city-parish.

Another assistant parish attorney Vicky Jones, who earns a government salary of $89,359, also has a busy family law practice. Since 2013, she filed at least 47 cases dealing with divorces and custody battles in the 19th JDC.

Leo D’Aubin, who takes home $98,925 from the city-parish, wrote on his conflict disclosure forms that in addition to the work for the city-parish, his private practice includes work in collections, contracts, corporate law, criminal defense, litigation, personal injury, real estate and wills and successions. He is listed as the lawyer in 20 cases in the 19th JDC since 2013 for his private practice clients, including at least one criminal defense client who was arrested by the Baton Rouge Police Department.

Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe, one of the main critics of Roper’s office, declined comment for this story. But he first raised the issues in 2010, during an initial effort to oust Roper. At the time, he conducted his own review of lawyers’ work practices and found parking records that suggested some staff worked only five or six hours a day. At the time, Roper countered that her attorneys do a lot of work out of the office, so those records were not a good indicator of when they are on the clock.

“They are allowed to maintain private practices, be members of other law firms (some are on actual letterheads of other firms), and basically practice any type of law in addition to their full-time job,” Loupe wrote in his 2010 report. “They are not required, nor does the office have any policy or procedure for checking for conflicts of interest that may exist because of this policy.”

Loupe said in May that the issues he detailed in his 2010 report still exist.

Advocate writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this story. Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/