Ira Thomas has served on the Orleans Parish School Board for the past four years. And he has been police chief for Southern University at New Orleans for three and a half years.
In holding both positions, he may violate state law.
The state’s Dual Office Holding and Dual Employment law generally bars someone from holding a statewide or local elected office while being employed by the state. Three sources — none of whom would speak on the record — told the Lens that Thomas’ job and elected office may violate that law.
The law in question, section D of Louisiana Revised Statute 42:63, reads:
No person holding an elective office in a political subdivision of this state shall at the same time hold another elective office or full-time appointive office in the government of this state or in the government of a political subdivision thereof. No such person shall hold at the same time employment in the government of this state, or in the same political subdivision in which he holds an elective office.
State law defines a “political subdivision” as any local government body, including a school board. Southern University is considered part of the executive branch of state government, according to a guide published by the Attorney General’s Office.
Thomas said he doesn’t believe his employment conflicts with his seat on the school board. He noted that he has disclosed his job in annual filings with the state Board of Ethics. But the board looks for violations of the state’s Code of Governmental Ethics, not the Dual Office Holding and Dual Employment law. That’s usually handled by the Attorney General’s Office, said Ethics Board spokeswoman Alainna Giacone.
The law does exempt public employees who work in a “professional educational capacity,” such as teachers or academic directors. Thomas said Monday that board attorney Edward Morris had informed him that he could be covered by this exemption.
However, Thomas said he doesn’t teach at the university or deal with academic curriculum. His job description, provided Monday in response to a public records request, makes no mention of academic duties.
At a school board meeting Tuesday evening, Thomas said he would seek an Attorney General’s opinion on the matter.
Even if the law does prohibit Thomas from working at Southern and sitting on the school board, chatter alone will not remove him from office. The law states that someone — a private citizen, district attorney or attorney general — must file a petition in court raising the issue, and a judge would have to rule against the officeholder.
Should that happen, a judge could declare Thomas’ school board seat vacant. But he may be allowed to serve until his successor qualifies to run for his seat.
No one has filed a petition alleging that Thomas violates the law, according to a search of files in Orleans Civil District Court.
Thomas was sworn in to the school board in January 2009 and started working at Southern University at New Orleans in September 2009. But no one raised the issue until now. He just became president of the board in January.
“Obviously, this is someone who has some problem with my position as president of the school board,” he said.
The Orleans Parish School Board was relatively quiet for the first few years of Thomas’ tenure. Starting last year, he and his ally, District 2 representative Cynthia Cade, started to feud with other members.
Last May, Thomas and Cade opposed the board majority’s decision to appoint the interim superintendent and deputy superintendent for charter schools. Thomas argued that the positions should have been opened to more candidates; Cade questioned interim superintendent Stan Smith’s credentials.
Then in February, a month after Thomas took over as board president, someone — it’s not clear who — placed an item on a board agenda to nullify both administrators’ contracts because they had not been properly approved. Thomas spoke in favor of both moves, but neither passed.
Several board insiders saw this as an attempt to oust the two administrators, but Thomas and Morris, the board’s attorney, said they were simply correcting past errors in how the contracts were handled. One of those items — to nullify the contract for deputy superintendent Kathleen Padian — is now listed on the board’s Tuesday night agenda.
Thomas also voted down a motion to add a tax credit financing deal to the board’s February agenda. The deal, which would pay for the Phillis Wheatley School’s continued construction, was touted by Recovery School District superintendent Patrick Dobard and others as a boon for the school board and the RSD.
Thomas said that he was unclear on the details of the deal; he later questioned the Recovery School District’s disadvantaged business enterprise program. In the end the financing deal was approved.
A complex law
The Lens asked seven law professors at five universities in New Orleans and around the state to discuss how the law would apply to someone in Thomas’s situation. The five who responded declined to comment on the record; several said they weren’t familiar enough with the situation or the law to offer an opinion.
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor has published a 29-page guide with explanations and examples of how the law applies in different cases, such as “Violet” who wants to know if she can serve as alderman and town clerk for the city of “Purpleton.” (In that case, the answer is black and white: no.)
A guide from the Attorney General’s Office shows just how complicated it is to sort out what’s legal and what’s not. A matrix provides guidance on 60 possible combinations of elected offices and types of positions: state, local and federal; full- and part-time employment; and elected and appointed offices.
Governmental entities and officials may request an attorney general’s opinion on whether particular positions violate dual service laws. Nearly a hundred people have done so in the past three years, according to Attorney General’s Office records.
A few involve school board members:
- Assumption Parish School Board member Lawrence Howell asked in 2011 if he could work as Nicholls State University’s executive vice president and sit on the school board. Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said the professional educator rule exempted Howell because his job required academic planning.
- Former Terrebonnne Parish School Board member Clark Bonvillain asked in 2011 if Terrebonne Parish School Board member Brenda Babin could serve on the board and work full-time at Fletcher Technical Community College. Caldwell said that he didn’t have Babin’s job description, but if she were employed in a professional educational capacity, she’d be exempt from the law. Babin is listed on the Fletcher Technical Community College’s website as a computer science instructor; she still serves on the Terrebonne board.
- Also in 2011, Former Terrebonne Parish School Board member Rickie Pitre asked if Debi Benoit could serve on the board and work as Nicholls State University’s director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. Caldwell said that Benoit was exempt because she teaches grant-writing classes.
Attorney general’s office spokeswoman Amanda Larkins told The Lens that her office avoids commenting on specific cases unless officials know all the facts. But she did provide a 2011 opinion:
In 2011, State Rep. Pat Smith asked if Domoine Rutledge could serve on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education while working as general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish School System. Caldwell noted that Rutledge ensured that the school district’s curriculum followed all applicable laws, served on a support team that monitored classrooms, and helped develop the system’s educational strategic plan. Therefore, Caldwell wrote, Rutledge was employed in an educational capacity.
The law is less restrictive when dealing with people who hold local elected office and work for local government, rather than the state. For instance, a 1996 Attorney General’s opinion stated that a Terrebone Parish School Board member could serve while employed with the Terrebone Parish Consolidated Government because each was a separate “political subdivision.”
Yet in 2004, Barry Bordelon resigned from the Jefferson Parish School Board a month after he took a job with Jefferson Parish Councilman Elton Lagasse. The Times-Picayune reported at the time that Bordelon cited the state’s dual office-holding law.
This story was updated after publication to note that Thomas said that he would seek an Attorney General’s opinion.