The gist: The Daily Advertiser and The Current are suing Lafayette Consolidated Government for access to records about the sexual harassment investigation of former interim Chief of Police Wayne Griffin. The court action follows weeks of repeated refusals by LCG and its attorneys to turn over public records to the two media outlets.
The suit was filed in state district court Feb. 2. It also names the Lafayette Police Department and Maj. Monte Potier, who is in command of the department on an interim basis. Read it here.
Get caught up, quickly. Two weeks after he was named interim chief on Oct. 7, Griffin was placed on administrative leave with pay when a fellow officer lodged a sexual harassment complaint against him. On Oct. 21, LCG announced a complaint had been filed that day and that its Human Resources Department would immediately launch an investigation into the allegations “in coordination with the Lafayette Police Department’s Internal Affairs.” On Jan. 6, LCG announced that the investigation had concluded and Griffin, who became interim chief after Mayor-President Josh Guillory fired Chief Thomas Glover Sr. without giving a reason, would be returned to the rank of sergeant but remain on administrative leave.
After a disciplinary hearing, Griffin was fired by Potier, though it remains unclear why he lost his job. His termination letter was dated Jan. 20, according to his attorney. Griffin had been a finalist for the job when Glover was hired in January 2021. Like Glover, he is appealing his termination.
Four people have run Lafayette Police Department in the last two years. Read a timeline of the turnover here.
“This lawsuit addresses two issues,” says attorney Gary McGoffin, who represents the two media outlets. “LCG routinely answers public record requests with a boilerplate letter arbitrarily extending its statutory obligation to respond by as much as 30 days.” McGoffin also maintains that the citations often offered by LCG to support its position to refuse production of the records, “even with appropriate redactions,” is contrary to established law compelling public records custodians to do so.
“What The Current is after is transparency,” says Executive Editor Christiaan Mader. “The public has a clear interest in the conduct of top-ranking police officials, and we believe this information is all the more vital given recent leadership turnover and reporting that suggests a toxic culture within the police department.”
Repeated denials of access. On a number of occasions throughout January, the two media outlets sought information from LCG on the investigation, among which were records on the initial sexual harassment complaint or complaints, records of statements produced during the investigation, recommended actions from supervisors, department heads or the mayor-president, and the full findings of the independent attorney hired to investigate the allegations.
Assistant city-parish attorneys denied those particular requests, with one responding that LCG “has no non-exempt records responsive to your request.”
In another request on Jan. 23, The Current sought Griffin’s termination letter from LCG. The request was refused three days later with a generic email from City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan’s office saying it would respond within 30 days, citing the “volume of records” requested. The statutory mandate for compliance is five days. The Current emailed back that it was requesting one record, insisting LCG’s “form response is not applicable.” Later that day, a different assistant city-parish attorney responded that LCG had no non-exempt records.
It is common practice for LCG to issue blanket denials to public records requests with the same language, regardless of the scope and specificity of the request:
The information requested will have to be gathered from a number of different sources and no public body is required to sort the information contained throughout its office in a special way or run a special report. Because of the volume of the records which you have requested, the need to locate those records and thereafter segregate or redact those portions of the records which are excepted from Louisiana’s Public Records Law, and the limited staff available to accomplish those tasks, it is anticipated that the gathering of the requested information will be burdensome and expensive.
The Current is challenging the adequacy of the boilerplate response. The lawsuit seeks to prevent LCG from issuing this kind of umbrella email to a public records request and argues that the statutes LCG otherwise relied on to deny the multiple requests are “inapplicable and easily distinguished from the facts and circumstances.” The two plaintiffs will ask the judge to review the records to determine which ones should be made publicly available.
The suit has been assigned to 15th Judicial District Judge Thomas Frederick, who will be asked to declare that the documents related to the Griffin investigation are public records and subject to inspection. The lawsuit is seeking attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by The Advertiser and The Current, along with penalties of $100 per day for the arbitrary withholding of public documents.