Some on council question moves to oust Mary Roper

An attempt to oust East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney Mary Roper took a new twist Wednesday as some Metro Council members were angry to learn a private attorney had been retained without their knowledge to investigate her.

The council had been expected to vote Wednesday on whether to remove Roper from office, but ended up deferring action until June 18 after objections were raised about Roper’s rights to due process.

In the process, what started as a personnel hearing has transformed into a courtroom-type battle with lawyers on both sides, witnesses, evidence and the council serving in the role of judge.

The council has been divided for weeks over the issue — a matter made worse Wednesday when it was revealed that an outside attorney was hired by some council members without the consent of others to build a case against Roper.

Attorney Jack Whitehead was prepared Wednesday to present evidence and call witnesses to testify against Roper. He provided council members with thick binders of public documents referred to as evidence.

However, some council members took issue with the fact that Whitehead was hired without their consent or knowledge.

“When did this council become a court room? When did I hire Jack?” asked a frustrated Councilwoman Tara Wicker. “I don’t ever remember anyone telling me we hired you.”

She noted the council has always voted to approve contracts related to legal representation.

Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel echoed Wicker’s complaints, saying she was initially told Whitehead would be acting as a mediator. She also said Whitehead didn’t respond to questions she subsequently posed to him related to allegations concerning Roper.

Banks-Daniel, who supports Roper, said she now feels like he was hired by only the council members who are trying to get rid of Roper.

“I am one of twelve up here,” she said, she said referring to the 12 council members. “I don’t think Mr. Whitehead is representing my one-twelth interest.”

After the hearing, several council members said they did not know who had hired Whitehead.

Assistant parish attorney Lea Anne Batson said she approved a contract that was requested by Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe. She said Whitehead is providing his services free of charge.

Asked directly, Loupe said he didn’t know who hired Whitehead or who had authorized him to collect the binder of evidence. He said all he knew was that Whitehead wasn’t being paid.

Whitehead on Wednesday refused The Advocate’s requests for copies of the binder of evidence against Roper. He collected copies that had been distributed to council members before leaving the council chambers.

Roper is being defended by Wade Shows, her predecessor as parish attorney. Shows asked for a deferral of Roper’s hearing, saying he needed time to prepare his presentation.

He said Roper had retained another lawyer previously, who dropped out at the last minute, citing a conflict.

Shows also said it was unclear before Wednesday what the procedures would be for the hearing and the time limits for it. He said he expected to be able to call witnesses to support Roper and to review evidence and a list of any witnesses that Whitehead will interview.

Councilman John Delgado, one of the council members sponsoring the effort to remove her, said Roper is not being accused of a crime. Rather, he said, the issue is at hand is whether the Metro Council thinks she’s doing a good job.

“She’s our attorney,” Delgado said. “If I’m someone’s attorney and they don’t like the job I’m doing, they can call me up and fire me.”

While Roper is not being investigated for a crime, she was initially asked by Loupe to take leave from her job because of the perception that she could have been associated with a potentially criminal matter.

Roper was asked to take leave in recent weeks, after it was discovered she sent her husband an email with source codes from an in-house software program called TRACE 360.

Roper said she was dealing with the source codes because she was asked to copyright the program, a process that includes sending the codes to the U.S. Copyright Office. She said she forwarded them to her husband because she had a question and he has a software background.

Council members have questioned why Roper would send the source codes to her husband, a software entrepreneur who could use them to his personal advantage.

The email came to light because another city-parish employee, Kyle Jones, was discovered to have been attempting to sell the software program as his own.

Publicly, council members who aim to remove Roper have said they are simply dissatisfied with her job.

But Banks-Daniel said the issues were initially framed by other council members as a legal issue.

“I was told she and her husband did something illegal,” Banks-Daniel said. “You’ve made the allegation... now show me the documentation that proves it.”

Roper said earlier this month that she feels the attack on her job is politically motivated. She said she is opting to have an open hearing, rather than a private one, to prove she has done nothing wrong.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/