Inside the News Room
 

Week in Review: Public records and meeting access; charter school nepotism

Ethics board rules Friends of King CEO Doris Hicks must lose her job for employing relatives

Five years ago The Lens reported Friends of King Schools CEO Doris Roché-Hicks employed six relatives, including a few that could violate state nepotism law.

Now, the state ethics board has ordered that Roché-Hicks must lose her job for violating nepotism and ethics laws.

A three-judge panel ruled that Roché-Hicks broke the law 10 times by employing her sister and son-in-law and by signing checks under a contract with her daughter.

Roché-Hicks’ sister, daughter and son-in-law also violated ethics and nepotism laws, a panel of three administrative law judges ruled on June 27.

Roché-Hicks was fined $20,000. Her daughter was fined $8,921 and must forfeit what she was paid under her contract. And her sister and son-in-law must pay $2,500 each.

In 2013, The Lens published our story on Roché-Hicks’ hired employed relatives.

A year later, the Louisiana Board of Ethics filed charges against Roché-Hicks and three relatives, alleging they violated nepotism and ethics laws.

The case dragged on for years. And it’s not the only one. Another charter CEO is still trying to reach a settlement over 2012 nepotism charges.

Roche-Hicks’ lawyer said “We will fight that demotion. Dr. Hicks planed to retire in December 2018 and we are prepared to go to court to save her job and clear her good name.”

Power plant opponents spar with city council over being kept out of public meetings on power plant

What does it truly mean to have access to a public meeting?

City Council lawyers, the nonprofits suing them over being kept out of public hearings on Entergy’s new power plant and their judge had a thoughtful and thought-provoking hearing on the matter this week.

Setting the scene were two buses from eastern New Orleans that pulled up to City Hall early on Thursday morning to ensure that residents who were shut out of packed public meetings about the new power plant could witness the Civil District Court hearing.

Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin questioned both sides thoroughly on what it means to allow access to a public meeting.

“The linchpin is that citizens are to be given an opportunity to comment” on matters before the council, Griffin said.

She inquired about comment cards, room capacity and questioned the City Attorney lawyers on whether it knew how many seats Entergy’s paid actors had taken.

Update on ‘Brady’s room’: Orleans Parish school district and charter school working on arrangements for high-needs student

We were happy to provide readers with an update on Brady LaFleur, the 14-year-old boy with Down syndrome and autism you met on our pages a few weeks ago.

Brady’s mom has been fighting to get him his own room this year at his new high school. He thrived in a specialized space she was told he can no longer use this year.

His new school, Morris Jeff Community School, is working with the district to find a space for Brady. Things nearly came full circle when his mom learned where he may spend his freshman year.

If you exercise your right to view government records, should you get sued? This woman was.

Four months ago, Gwen Payne was driving through Tallulah, Louisiana, selling a text-message marketing service to businesses when the local paper caught her eye.

The Madison Journal, like many small-town papers, boasts an anemic staff and doesn’t have a working website. Gwen stopped in to talk texts and walked out a volunteer reporter.

In just a few months, Gwen revealed that promised projects were unlikely to materialize and questioned why the city wasn’t applying for certain grants. Cheered on by locals on Facebook, she made the ruling class uncomfortable. She started getting tips on more stories, so she emailed her first public records request to the city.

For her trouble, she became the latest victim of a disturbing trend around the country: the reverse public records lawsuit. The city of Tallulah sued her for trying to access records of how its officials were spending taxpayer money.

Suits like this are taxpayer-financed abuses of government power. And they’re becoming more common.

Orleans Parish school district confirms Harney charter school held on to employees’ retirement contributions

It was only after The Lens asked to see financial records that money withheld from Edgar P. Harney charter school employees’ October, November and December paychecks found its way into their retirement accounts. And that was in mid-February.

The Internal Revenue Service says transferring retirement funds should generally take about two weeks, and likely no more than four. Harney held onto employees’ retirement withholdings for weeks, sometimes months.

Over those three months last year, the school withheld $55,000 from employees’ retirement accounts. When the school deposited the funds months late, it didn’t include any interest or money to account for what the employees may have made in investments.

This week the district confirmed our June reporting on the matter. The district will hire a forensic auditor to help investigate.

Will Episcopalians betray their values and sell Canal Street church to homophobes?

Community activist Leo Watermeier has a big question. And he hasn’t been able to get an answer.

“The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana is considering selling the former Grace Church on Canal Street to a fundamentalist Baton Rouge mega-church variously called Bethany World Prayer Center or Bethany Church.

One of its facilities in the Baton Rouge area is marked by the three giant crosses visible from Interstate 10.

Founded in 1963 by Roy Stockstill and family-run by Stockstills two generations later, Bethany has aligned itself closely with the Family Research Council, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Efforts to “cure” gay men and women through conversion boot camps are now illegal in several states. Louisiana is not one of them.”

Will they sell the church? He gives you more information in his opinion piece.

Join us on Wednesday for a public records workshop on criminal justice records

Join Lens reporters and attorney Scott Sternberg for our Criminal Justice Public Records workshop.

When: Wednesday, July 25
6 – 7:30 p.m. (Doors open at 5:30 p.m.)

Location: Propeller, 4035 Washington Ave.

Let us know if you’re coming!

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.