School Board to consider dropping DA’s Office, hiring private firm

If the Lafayette Parish School Board votes Wednesday to dismiss the District Attorney’s Office as its general counsel, it may hire the firm now handling the majority of its legal work.

Board member Greg Awbrey has proposed hiring the firm Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice as the board’s interim general counsel while a committee begins the process of choosing new representation for the board.

For about 15 years, the board has received free general counsel services from an assistant district attorney appointed by the 15th Judicial District Sttorney. State law requires the district attorney’s offices to provide free representation as the general counsel for school boards, but there’s no mandate that school boards use the free service.

Historically, the School Board’s general counsel attends its meetings and provides advice on open meeting laws and other legal issues. In the past, the assigned assistant district attorney also was available at least two days a week at the School Board office.

Since July to the end of September, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice performed nearly $30,000 in legal services for the school district.

The board budgeted $68,895 for legal services for the fiscal year that began July 1 and ends June 30.

Some of the legal work performed by the private firm is related to litigation while other work is related to staff requests for reviews of human resource issues or contracts.

Some charges during those three months are related to board member’s requests — either made to the law firm or in School Board meetings. In July and August, at least $6,370 in legal services was related to attorneys’ attendance at board meetings.

Superintendent Pat Cooper sent an email to Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice last week advising the firm that the district is “running way ahead on our expenditures for legal services” and requested that the firm include the name of the staff member or board member who made a request for services on its invoices.

Cooper informed the firm that he will no longer approve invoices that don’t contain the requested information.

Cooper said in the email that many of the legal questions handled by the firm could be addressed by the assistant district attorney, “but unless I know who and why the services are requested, this information is difficult to assimilate.”

The board’s current general counsel, assistant district attorney Rodney Hamilton Jr., is a full-time prosecutor who was assigned to the board in September. He replaced James Simon, who retired.

Awbrey proposed the dismissal of the DA’s Office based on Hamilton’s handling of the board’s resolution to hire another firm as its special counsel to investigate Cooper.

The board approved the resolution in a 5-4 vote in July, and its request was pending approval by the Attorney General’s Office, which by law vets board requests for special counsel and sets rate limits for special counsel legal services.

While the resolution didn’t specify the reasons for the investigation, board members have said that it’s related to 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.

In a letter sent to the Attorney General’s Office on Oct. 23, Hamilton said he found no cause for the board’s request and would ask the board to rescind its resolution.

Hamilton acted outside of the board’s interests, Awbrey said.

“If the ADA did not feel good about that resolution, he should have said, ‘I cannot represent you here’ or come to the board and ask them to withdraw the resolution,” Awbrey said.

It’s unclear how much it will cost to use a private law firm as the board’s general counsel, which Awbrey said, is an issue for the board to discuss.

Free representation isn’t a valid argument for retaining the DA’s Office as the board’s general counsel, Awbrey said.

“My opinion is if you have a free service that does damage to you — you shouldn’t use it,” he said.

On Monday, 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson defended Hamilton’s handling of the resolution request, but said he’ll support whatever decision the board makes Wednesday.

“We didn’t feel there was sufficient grounds to warrant calling in special counsel at the taxpayers’ expense. That’s not to say that they can’t do (an investigation) in house … but we weren’t just going to authorize a larger expenditure without merit,” Harson said.