Counsel: No cause to investigate
LAFAYETTE — The assistant district attorney representing the Lafayette Parish School Board has advised the Attorney General’s Office that the board has no cause to hire special counsel to investigate Superintendent Pat Cooper.
The School Board had approved in July a resolution seeking special counsel to investigate Cooper over the March 2012 hiring of Thad Welch as a special assistant to the superintendent for facilities, maintenance, grounds and transportation.
Some board members claimed Cooper violated board policy and should be reprimanded because he recommended Welch for the job knowing that Welch did not have the high school education required for the job.
Requests for special counsel must be approved by the Attorney General’s Office, which also sets the allowable expenses public bodies may pay for legal services.
“I do not find sufficient facts that warrant an investigation into Dr. Pat Cooper at this time,” 15th Judicial District Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton wrote in a letter Wednesday to the Attorney General’s Office.
Hamilton said his opinion is based on his review of meeting minutes and the letter of reprimand that board members approved in April that chastised Cooper.
Board member Rae Trahan proposed the resolution in July to hire Metairie law firm Grant & Barrow to investigate Cooper. The resolution received the support of board members Greg Awbrey, Mark Allen Babineaux, Tommy Angelle and Tehmi Chassion. Board members: Mark Cockerham, Kermit Bouillion, board President Shelton Cobb and Hunter Beasley voted against it.
In a letter dated Sept. 30, Hamilton advised the Attorney General’s Office that because the resolution failed to provide specific facts or allegations against Cooper, he’d request that board members discuss the matter in executive session so Cooper could receive notice of the basis of the resolution.
The board has met three times since Hamilton’s Sept. 30 letter and an executive session to discuss the resolution was not noticed on those agendas. At its Oct. 16 meeting, the board met in executive session to discuss its rejection of a bill paid for Cooper’s legal fees associated with the claims he violated board policy.
Cooper, who released the letter from Hamilton to the news media Friday, said he’ll ask the board to rescind its resolution requesting special counsel and rescind its decision to reprimand him.
He said he’ll also ask the board to take up his offer for mediation to work out their differences and to hold a workshop on governance.
“We’ve gone through a bad year,” Cooper said. “We need to work together.”
When reached by phone Friday afternoon, Trahan said she was unaware of Hamilton’s decision.
“I don’t understand how the legal representative of the board cannot support the board’s decision when it was a strong vote to support this,” Trahan said. “My first thought in bringing this resolution to the board was to remove all doubt as to the superintendent’s actions being correct. But at this point, the push has become so strong to drop it that my question is what were they trying to hide?”
She said she’s felt pressure from Lafayette legislators to drop the resolution. State Reps. Joel Robideaux, Nancy Landry, and Stuart Bishop and state Sen. Page Cortez sent Attorney General Buddy Caldwell a letter dated Aug. 30 asking him to consider certain factors when he considers the board’s resolution to hire special counsel. The legislators don’t ask Caldwell to reject the request, but rather ask him to consider that Cooper acted in line with state law, known as Act 1, and that the board’s resolution doesn’t offer specifics.
The legislators also questioned the expense of an attorney and told Caldwell that the board already has an attorney appointed by the District Attorney’s Office and another law firm to provide legal counsel.
Trahan said she’s open to mediation and saw her resolution as a means to bridge accord between Cooper and board members questioning his decisions. She later added that she still plans to push for an investigation.
Hamilton, a full-time prosecutor, was appointed by District Attorney Mike Harson as the board’s attorney last month to replace former assistant district attorney James Simon who retired.
Cooper said Friday afternoon that the issue — particularly the reprimand — has been a stumbling block for relations between him and the board.
“For me, with 42 years (in education) and never a blemish on my (record), it was a stumbling block for me,” he said. “Let’s just get on with our business.”