Law firm hired to investigate Lafayette superintendent quits

Company tasked to investigate Cooper

LAFAYETTE — A Gretna law firm the Lafayette Parish School Board hired to investigate Superintendent Pat Cooper turned in its notice — about a week after starting work on the case.

Attorney Michael Fanning, of the Grant & Barrow law firm, in an April 23 letter to the board’s attorney, Bob Hammonds, cited a lack of time needed to conduct the investigation.

The development is yet another kink in the board’s attempts to hire attorneys. It is in the process of hiring new general counsel after relieving the District Attorney’s Office as its general counsel in November.

The board waited until February to appoint Hammonds’ law firm as its interim general counsel.

Its search for general counsel only recently got underway, and the board’s search committee has set a tentative deadline of July to name potential candidates.

Now, it appears, they’ll also need to search for new special counsel, the role the Grant & Barrow firm was to have played.

Board President Hunter Beasley said Tuesday the board’s next step is to decide whether it wants to go forward with the investigation and hire new special counsel.

In an April 28 letter notifying Beasley that Fanning had given notice, Hammonds wrote his firm was in the process of searching for a new attorney to take over as special counsel.

When one is identified, Hammonds wrote, the board will need to adopt a new resolution to hire special counsel.

The board initially approved the special counsel resolution to hire Grant & Barrow in July 2013.

The request stalled until October 2013 when then-general counsel and Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton Jr. advised the Attorney General’s Office that an investigation of Cooper by special counsel was unnecessary.

A month later, the board relieved the District Attorney’s Office from its duties as general counsel, citing Hamilton’s letter as a major reason.

A request this month by Hammonds’ firm to revive the special counsel resolution was approved by the Attorney General’s Office on April 11, said Laura Gerdes Cooligan, spokeswoman for the AG’s office.

Fanning’s withdrawal comes about a week after he submitted a public records request to Cooper.

Cooper said Tuesday that he was surprised by the withdrawal notice since his staff spent the past few days fulfilling the request and had turned over all the requested information.

“We’ve spent a lot of time collecting all this information and we plan to bill for our time, so whether they’re going to follow-through with it or not, they’re going to owe us some money,” Cooper said.

Beasley said Tuesday that Hammonds’ office notified him in a phone call last week that Fanning planned to withdraw.

Beasley said he did not share the information with board members then because he was awaiting official confirmation that came from Hammonds this week.

Beasley said he was unaware that Fanning had made a public records request to Cooper for information.

Withdrawing as special counsel was unavoidable, Fanning wrote Hammonds on April 23.

“When I originally agreed last July, my schedule provided me ample time to conduct a prompt, thorough investigation. Since then my caseload has increased and I do not have the time to travel to Lafayette and spend the significant amount of time that investigations of this type require.,” Fanning wrote.

The board’s resolution to investigate Cooper never specified the reasons for an investigation.

However, the request came after some board members questioned Cooper’s decision not to terminate the employment of Thad Welch, a special assistant to the superintendent for maintenance, transportation, grounds and facilities after it was discovered that Welch lacked the required high school education specified for the position.

Cooper has maintained that a new state law, enacted in July 2012, gives him authority over personnel decisions. The board reprimanded Cooper in April 2013 over Welch’s hiring.

Since then, some board members and Cooper have stood on opposite sides of other personnel decisions made by the superintendent. Information requested by Fanning sheds some light on issues the board wanted an attorney to delve into in his investigation.

Fanning requested copies of resolutions or board action related to: Cooper’s contract; salaries and work days of principals; the creation of Welch’s position and his salary and work days; authorization of payment for legal service performed by attorney Lane Roy on behalf of Cooper; contracts of those principals appointed by Cooper; the hiring of Hammonds & Sills as general counsel and Grant & Barrow as special counsel; the hiring of public relations firms; and charter schools.