Fired Jefferson employee claims officials are skirting public record law

Settlement discussions in a sexual harassment lawsuit involving a former Jefferson Parish administrator have stalled, and the plaintiff complained to the Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday that the parish administration is attempting to skirt Louisiana’s public records law to hide misbehavior.

Heather Hilliard, the parish’s former chief administrative assistant for public safety, told the council she is seeking its help in securing email from the private email accounts of Parish President John Young, Chief Operating Officer Christopher Cox and Deputy Chief Operating Officer Jennifer VanVrancken.

Hilliard claims officials used their personal accounts to discuss parish business in an attempt to avoid having to disclose that correspondence during public records requests.

“I strongly suspect John Young is hiding something in personal emails that deal with public business,” Hilliard told the board. “When people ask for public records, we expect the parish to provide or direct production of the documents regarding public business no matter where public officials decide to keep it.”

Although Young would not comment on the details of Hilliard’s lawsuit, he did say that he had not used his private email account to evade public records’ laws.

“Absolutely not true,” Young said on Thursday.

Cox declined comment on Hilliard’s comment, citing the fact that it’s an ongoing legal matter.

They did confirm that the email addresses Hilliard provided the council were for their private accounts.

Hilliard said that when she was employed by the parish, Young would issue directions from his personal account to parish employees. She also provided the council with documents she claims show that there was a plan by the administration to keep sensitive emails out of any public email accounts.

The National Freedom of Information Coalition has noted that public officials increasingly turn to using private email accounts to conduct public business as a way of skirting public records rules.

Louisiana’s laws require that documents used in public business are subject to public records’ requests with some exemptions, but there have been questions raised about how email from private accounts would be tracked and archived.

Last year, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office was criticized in some corners because staffers used private email accounts to develop plans for dealing with the media response to Jindal’s decision to cut Medicaid funding and tried to avoid public email accounts.

Jefferson Parish does not have a policy that prohibits the use of private equipment to conduct public business.

Hilliard sued the parish in February alleging that she was sexually harassed by a co-worker, Richard Hart, who later became her supervisor. Hilliard also says she was demoted and fired by Young more than a year ago when she complained about those actions.

In her lawsuit, Hilliard claims Hart resigned shortly after information corroborating her claims was revealed.

“I was terminated for complaining about a friend and political supporter of the parish president,” she said.

The Parish Council previously authorized Young’s administration to begin settlement discussions with Hilliard and discussed her lawsuit behind closed doors Wednesday. No additional action was ordered though. Hilliard said parish officials have stopped participating in settlement talks, and she has struggled to find employment since losing her job after 18 months.

“I’m asking them to come back to the discussion,” Hilliard said.

In her lawsuit, Hilliard claimed Hart used sexually offensive language and made vulgar comments starting in February 2011. She says she complained to Cox and to the parish’s Human Resources director.

The lawsuit says the parish hired an outside firm to investigate the matter and that investigation found several witnesses who said that Hart was demeaning and rude in his behavior, particularly to women. The suit also said that Hart came to work armed with a gun.

This story was altered on May 16, 2013