Probe looks at ex-parish president
Chalmette — Nineteen boxes of St. Bernard Parish records were seized from a storage unit used by former St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro Jr. on Tuesday in a raid initiated by a deputy assigned to current St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta’s office.
The boxes are being held by the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office until they can be turned over to the Justice Department, which is investigating allegations of housing discrimination during Taffaro’s tenure. The parish was ordered to turn over documents related to that lawsuit to federal prosecutors earlier this month.
In a brief statement, the Sheriff’s Office confirmed removing the boxes from a storage unit at 8400 W. Judge Perez Drive.
Although sheriff’s deputies picked up the documents, the seizure was initiated by Sgt. Jarrod Gourgues, who is assigned to Peralta’s office and works separately from the rest of the Sheriff’s Office. In an application for a search warrant filed in 34th Judicial District Court, Gourgues said he was seeking the records as part of an investigation into “injuring of public records.”
Louisiana law prohibits the removal, concealment and destruction of public documents, and the sentence, if convicted, can be imprisonment of up to five years.
Gourgues said he was tipped off to the presence of the records by parish employees, according to the application. One employee said he was told to remove records by Taffaro, and another employee confirmed their presence in the storage unit after speaking to the owner of the complex. That employee said the boxes contained time sheets and documents related to the “Redfish cup tournament,” according to the application.
But Henry Klein, Taffaro’s attorney, said it’s ridiculous to think Taffaro was storing original documents in a private storage unit and called the seizure an attempt by St. Bernard officials to “get the heat off” because they had not produced the required records.
Klein said Taffaro only had copies in his possession and left all originals with the parish. He kept the documents in case he needed to refer to them later because he didn’t trust the parish to provide them to him in a timely fashion, Klein said.
“Making public records requests in St. Bernard Parish is like dealing with Idi Amin,” Klein said Thursday. “There is nothing Mr. Taffaro had in storage that St. Bernard Parish didn’t have.”
Peralta’s office did not immediately return a request for comment on the seizure.
St. Bernard Parish has been embroiled in a protracted dispute with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center for years over accusations that during Taffaro’s tenure, the parish attempted to prevent minority renters from moving into St. Bernard to keep it a mostly white enclave. That group has alleged that the parish established discriminatory moratoriums and permitting rules — including one that limited renting to blood relatives — to keep out minorities. After losing several legal challenges, the parish eliminated many of the rules and allowed the construction of apartment complexes that had been blocked for years.
In January, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the parish in order to prevent it from enacting any similar ordinances in the future and to seek damages for those harmed by the initial rules.
Taffaro, who lost his bid for re-election last fall, is now Louisiana’s director of hazard mitigation — a $150,000-a-year job to which Gov. Bobby Jindal named him in December.
“We still have confidence in Craig and the job he’s doing for the hazard mitigation program,” said Shannon Bates, Jindal’s spokeswoman.