Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell may have violated state ethics law when she amended a proposed city ordinance governing police officers’ off-duty work to exclude major events such as ones at the Fair Grounds, where her two sons work.
The amendment, co-sponsored by Hedge-Morrell and Councilwoman Stacy Head, would likely mean that Sgt. Todd Morrell and Officer Nicholas Morrell would be exempted from a new requirement that they be periodically rotated out of their Fair Grounds detail.
The City Council has been working for months to adopt a city ordinance that codifies federally mandated changes to the paid off-duty detail system, which a 2009 Department of Justice report described as the “aorta of corruption” within the Police Department. In part, the report found that officers often put more time and energy into their off-duty work because it pays substantially more than their day jobs.
The recently adopted federal consent decree limits how much officers can work off-duty, prohibits low-ranking officers from supervising higher-ranking ones in such work, and moves oversight of the detail program from the Police Department to a new office in City Hall.
The decree also requires that officers who work regular details be rotated out at least once a year in order to provide “a fair and equitable number of secondary employment opportunities to all NOPD employees.”
The ordinance would have exempted some officers from that requirement: those who work “Major Special Events” such as Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, Essence Music Festival and college sports championships.
Hedge-Morrell and Head’s amendment broadened the definition of “Major Special Events” to include any event with an attendance above 2,000 at a number of venues, including the Fair Grounds. The amendment passed in a unanimous 6-0 vote during the council’s July 11 meeting. (District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell was absent for the vote.)
Police spokeswoman Remi Braden confirmed that both Morrells worked Fair Grounds details “as recently as last year.” Braden, contacted by The Lens late Thursday afternoon, could not immediately provide information on how much they earned there. Fair Grounds officials did not return repeated requests for the events that Todd and Nicholas Morrell worked.
In a phone interview, Hedge-Morrell acknowledged that she knew her sons work off-duty at the Fair Grounds.
The Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics requires elected officials to recuse themselves from voting on items in which they or their immediate families have a “substantial economic interest.” Elected officials are allowed to discuss those items, but only after disclosing a conflict of interest. Hedge-Morrell did neither prior to the July 11 vote.
“They work a detail doing patrols in the neighborhood,” Hedge-Morrell said in an interview. But she said she didn’t change the ordinance in order to benefit her sons. The language in the amendment was suggested by the Fraternal Order of Police, she said.
That’s true, said Raymond Burkart, a spokesman for the association. The amendment expanded the exemption to a long list of large venues, including the Superdome, the New Orleans Arena and the Saenger Theater. Neither the Fair Grounds nor Hedge-Morrell’s sons were the focus, he said.
“I personally do not know that they work the Fair Grounds. The intent of the amendment had nothing to do with her sons,” Burkart said. “The intent had to do with venues with a capacity of 2,000 people or more.”
He said he specifically requested that such venues be excluded because “when you’re dealing with major venues as an officer, if you have an emergency situation at the Saenger Theater, if you’ve been working it for years, you know every nook and cranny of it.”
Burkart said the association “went out of our way to keep her [Hedge-Morrell’s] kids out of it. We didn’t talk to them.”
Hedge-Morrell further pointed out that her sons only work the detail; they don’t coordinate it or make assignments, which Braden confirmed.
“My sons are police officers,” Hedge-Morrell said. “They put on a vest and go to work every day, just like every other police officer.”
The amended ordinance is scheduled for a full City Council vote on August 8, according to the annotated agenda for the July 11 meeting. Hedge-Morrell said if she concludes that there is a conflict of interest, she will recuse herself from that vote.