Political maneuvering in advance of budget review leaves Arthur Morrell in hot water with judge; he blames PR advisor

Called into court under a judge’s subpoena Wednesday morning, Orleans Parish Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell blamed a bad news release for reports that he was shuttering a courtroom indefinitely for a lack of clerks to man it.

Judge Laurie White was not impressed, nor were members of a City Council committee later in the day, when Morrell proceeded to bash Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration for refusing to let him fill empty posts in his office.

In the meantime, Morrell said he had fired the public relations firm that sent out the news release, co-owned by longtime political advisers Allan Katz and Danae Columbus. Later in the day, however, he said he has only ended his relationship with Katz, who authored the news release. Columbus, who has worked for Morrell and his wife, City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, in various political capacities for more than a decade, will continue working with the office.

Morrell had hoped to land a blow in his budget scrum with the city when he hit the media interview circuit late Tuesday, on the eve of the budget hearing.

A lack of available clerks in Section A — with one going out on sick leave Monday and another fired a few weeks ago — would leave White empty-handed, with no one left to fill in, he said.

“You’re going to have criminals here who may be able to get out of jail because they’re not able to have their day in court” under speedy trial laws, Morrell said in an interview with WVUE-TV Fox 8. “If you don’t have the paperwork there to have a trial, the judge has no choice, and this is very serious. I’m not playing games.”

Still, Morrell told White on Wednesday that he never meant to suggest he could simply close her section of court. He said a news release he forwarded to the public relations agency on Tuesday was edited poorly, and that he never approved it.

In the draft that Morrell wrote, he claimed the city’s chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin, was breaking state law by failing to release funding to hire new clerks.

“Section ‘A’ may not hold court tomorrow or the next day or who knows for how long,” Morrell wrote in the draft, which he gave to The Advocate on Wednesday. “Mr. Kopplin has been warned time and time again that this might happen, and it has.”

The news release that media organizations received put it slightly differently, saying Morrell “had to shut Section A down today. ...”

That statement rankled White, who entered her courtroom Wednesday morning, donned her robe and sat before a gallery devoid of the usual row of inmates in orange jail scrubs.

There had been no one to gather a jail list to give to the Sheriff’s Office to fetch inmates for their court appearances, Morrell said.

About two-thirds of the 21 people on White’s docket were in jail, leaving her to handle just a few defendants in street clothes.

“Please let the world know on the outside that Section A, it is open,” White said before issuing a subpoena for Morrell, who was served by a sheriff’s deputy by his office downstairs.

Morrell appeared at 10 a.m. and told the judge that “the news media has gotten misinformation partly because the person I gave the press release altered it.

“The notion I could hold up court is ridiculous.”

Morrell said he was able to shuffle clerks to staff White’s courtroom Wednesday. White suggested Morrell could have pulled together the jail list himself.

“I don’t have the authority to shut down the court. That’s serious,” Morrell reiterated outside the courtroom.

Katz sent out a second release Wednesday attempting to clarify Morrell’s statement.

Either way, it didn’t seem to help at a joint hearing of the council’s criminal justice and budget committees. Cynthia Hedge-Morrell was not in attendance.

Morrell claimed that under state law, his budget is based on bodies, not money — and that the city is shorting him.

Last year, Morrell sued Landrieu’s administration, arguing that state law requires the city to fully fund his office and pay for a staff of 90. Including four people out on sick leave, the office is 13 short, he said.

Landrieu’s office, meanwhile, claims the city has the right to require that the clerk’s office run within a reasonable budget. And earlier this year, Kopplin kicked back paperwork for four new hires in Morrell’s office, refusing to pay them.

“Consistently your office has been operating over budget,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry told him.

“The reason I’m so upset is I hired four people, put them to work two weeks, trained them only to find out the administration won’t pay them. I was not over my budget then. I’m not over my budget now,” Morrell responded.

According to figures provided by Morrell, his office is $170,000 below budget for the first half of the year, money he says could go to new hires.

In the court case, Morrell has appealed an unfavorable decision to the 4th Circuit. Morrell said a new state law passed this year bolsters his argument by making it clear the city must go to the state Legislature before cutting his budget.

Kopplin said he was forced to put the squeeze on Morrell after the office overspent its budget by about $900,000 from 2010 to 2012. Morrell came asking for $4.4 million for 2013. The city budgeted $3.7 million, virtually all of it for personnel.

“Right now he’s got about 83 folks on the city’s payroll. That’s five less than the 88 he had in 2010,” Kopplin said. “He can reduce his salaries. He can reduce his number of personnel, but he’s got to live within that particular budget.”

Morrell’s public relations play didn’t sit well with Guidry.

“I watched you on TV last night,” she said. “I think it’s incumbent upon the clerk to do everything in his power to keep the court running efficiently. I think it’s possible to do. It needs to be done.”

What also didn’t play well was Morrell’s admitted refusal to allow the city’s Innovation Delivery Team in to review how his office operates and suggest better ways.

“You were sending me carpenters over there for advice on how to run the criminal court clerk’s system. How are they going to come there and advise me on how to save money?” Morrell said.

“I imagine they have other expertise that will help with your system. Why would you not want to accept assistance?” Guidry asked. “If it didn’t work, OK, no harm no foul.”

Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson intervened, suggesting a custom team to assess Morrell’s office, which he accepted.

“There’s no need for us not to help you make this work,” she said.

White, meanwhile, is expected back in court Thursday, with a roomful of criminal defendants.