CONVENT — District Attorney Ricky Babin, who has had a hand in the ongoing prosecutions of two parish presidents in his jurisdiction made it clear to St. James Parish officials and just about everyone else that he’ll be making the decisions about who to pursue criminally.
He did so as the Parish Council considered a resolution asking the DA to drop the prosecution of Blaise Gravois, a top parish administrator. A judge took the unusual step of throwing out Gravois’ grand jury indictment in April but Babin has appealed that decision.
“No resolution passed by this Council carries any influence, bearing or weight on whom, when, and how my office prosecutes cases and defendants,” Babin told the council members in Vacherie last week, as he read from a letter. “I intend to abide by my oath, and suggest you do the same.”
Speculation of possible political motives and suspicions of conflicts of interest have hovered around the malfeasance in office prosecutions of Gravois, St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel and another parish official since their grand jury indictments were handed up in late September.
Defense attorneys have seized on those suspicions to call into question the prosecutions. But the courts have so far dealt with the claims in a mixed fashion, rejecting Roussel’s bid to recuse the entire 23rd Judicial District judiciary but throwing out Gravois’ indictment.
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Judge Jason Verdigets of the 23rd JDC is now being asked weigh in on Roussel’s case in the coming months as each side alleges conflicts of interest for attorneys involved, court papers show.
Defense attorneys for Roussel want Babin recused from the case, which is being handled by the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office with assistance from Babin’s office.
Defense lawyers point to a dispute between Roussel and Babin last year over the pay of former Parish Attorney Bruce Mohon, who works for Babin as an assistant district attorney.
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Babin’s office — his jurisdiction is in St. James, Ascension and Assumption parishes — was involved for months last year in the investigation of Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa over unrelated attempted election bribery allegations. Babin recused his office on eve of a planned grand jury proceeding late last year after it came to light that one of his top prosecutors contributed to Matassa’s election campaign.
Babin’s office has not responded to St. James Parish President Roussel’s motion in court, but a Babin spokesman said Friday the district attorney isn’t going anywhere.
“We plan to vigorously oppose the motion, which has no basis in law or fact,” Babin’s spokesman, Tyler Cavalier, said.
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Meanwhile, prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office are trying to get Roussel’s defense attorney, Brian Capitelli, booted off the case. Capitelli has a conflict of interest, prosecutors argue, because he represented the parish and was by it for a time before he began representing Roussel individually.
Capitelli has said he was only ever working for Roussel, that Roussel paid back the parish in an abundance of caution and countered that the Attorney General’s Office motion was payback for Capitelli’s attempt at removing Babin from the case.
“It is apparent that the state’s motion to disqualify defense counsel is a retaliatory and dilatory measure, not one based upon reasonable legal concerns,” Capitelli wrote.
The grand jury indicted Roussel and Gravois last fall on allegations they directed parish workers and resources to do work on private property without reimbursement.
The indictments don’t contend either benefited personally or directly from the illegal work. But the improvements, such as removing a blighted backyard shed from the property of an elderly woman and bolstering a failing drainage ditch near someone’s home, happened primarily during Roussel’s tough re-election bid in the fall of 2015.
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The indictments were brought months after the conflict between Babin and Roussel over Mohon’s continued employment as parish attorney.
Some questioned then if the charges carried the hint of political payback, saying they seemed suddenly to criminalize the kind of small-time public works that had been done for decades in the parish.
Though Gravois’ attorneys didn’t specifically involve themselves in the dispute between Babin and Roussel, they leveled allegations of prosecutorial misconduct against Mohon, claiming he improperly furthered the indictment.
They also said it was unfair to charge Gravois for his job under a previously untested interpretation of the malfeasance in office law.
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Judge Jessie LeBlanc of the 23rd Judicial District took the unusual step in late April of throwing out all of Gravois’ counts, saying prosecutors’ novel interpretation of the law would force public officials to have to guess if their actions were criminal.
“This opens a broad door to favoritism and abuse,” LeBlanc wrote.
While Roussel’s defense attorneys promise to raise similar allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and unfair prosecution to throw out his indictment, they are trying first to use the political dispute between Roussel and Babin to attack the prosecutors’ standing, court papers show.
Well before the indictments, in mid-May 2016, a months-long struggle between Roussel and Babin over the future of then-Parish Attorney Mohon broke out into public view during a Parish Council meeting.
An April 28, 2016, letter to the Parish Council came to light in which Babin charged the pay dispute was a “political vendetta” over Mohon’s long-standing friendship with Roussel’s primary opponent in his 2015 re-election campaign.
Babin’s letter to the council came three days after Roussel told Mohon he was going to cut his pay, the letter says.
What only Roussel, Babin and possibly a few others knew then at the May council meeting in Vacherie was that a day after Babin wrote his April 28, 2016 letter to the council the St. James Parish grand jury sent a subpoena to Roussel, court filings show.
In seeking to throw Babin’s office off the case, Roussel’s defense attorneys are playing up this timeline — Mohon’s pay is cut, Babin charges politics by Roussel and the grand jury subpoena follows — to suggest that it is the prosecution of Roussel that is the political payback, not Mohon’s pay cut.
“In this instance when a request for funding for one of Mr. Babin’s assistants (Mohon) was denied, a grand jury subpoena was the District Attorney’s response,” Capitelli wrote. “The clear conflict and public dispute between Mr. Babin and Mr. Roussel requires recusal.”
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Judge Verdigets has set a hearing in August to decide whether to force Babin off the case. Meanwhile, Verdigets is asking for checks, invoices and financial statements from Roussel’s attorneys and from the parish before he decides if Capitelli should be taken off the case.