An early voting sign in front of New Orleans City Hall. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

It appears that New Orleans’ top election official, Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell, violated the Louisiana Election Code by disclosing the names and addresses of local election commissioners in response to a public records request. 

However, it appears that violation helped Morrell steer clear of a much more serious crime — using government resources to support a political election campaign. That can carry criminal penalties, including imprisonment

The potential violations stem from Morrell’s decision to send endorsement letters to the election commissioners that operate the city’s polling places, urging them to vote for Darren Lombard to replace him as clerk. Lombard went on to win the election earlier this month and will succeed Morrell in May. 

The letters, first exposed by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, were immediately criticized by some of the poll workers who received them, as well as Lombard’s opponent, Austin Badon, who called the campaign an “egregious misuse of power.”

But Morrell defended the move, saying it was perfectly legal. Unlike in other states, it isn’t illegal for the city’s chief election official to take sides in the elections they oversee. And, he said, no government funds were used in the campaign. 

The problem, however, is that the list of election commissioner addresses — maintained by Morrell’s office — isn’t supposed to be public information under the Louisiana Election Code. That means, in theory, Morrell’s endorsement letter campaign would have relied on government records he had unique access to because of his position in elected office.

Using non-public records would put Morrell in danger of violating state laws prohibiting the use of government resources for electioneering, according to Tulane political science professor Mirya Holman. One state law on government ethics, for example, says that “no public servant shall use the authority of his office or position, directly or indirectly, in a manner intended to compel or coerce any person or other public servant to engage in political activity.” The law also prohibits the use of public funds, which can include publicly funded resources or public employee time spent on the job, for political activity. 

However, Morrell appears to have avoided those potential infractions by improperly releasing the list of addresses to the public. Once they were made public, Morrell no longer had unique access to the list through his position as clerk. 

‘Submit it and find out’

In an early December interview, Morrell told The Lens he obtained the list of addresses he used for the endorsement letter campaign through a public records request, although he wouldn’t reveal who submitted it. 

“A public records request was submitted,” he said. 

In June 2020, the state election code was amended to prohibit election officers, including clerks of court, from disclosing the addresses of election commissioners. However, after The Lens pointed out the new law, Morrell still contended that the letter campaign was done within the boundaries of state laws and ethics rules.

“That’s my impression,” he said.

Asked if his office would again release those addresses if it received a subsequent public records request, Morrell encouraged The Lens to submit one itself.

“Submit it and find out,” Morrell said.

In response to The Lens’ public records request, Morrell released hundreds of addresses for local election commissioners, once again appearing to violate state law. 

Holman said that it appeared to be a fairly clear cut violation of the new law. She said Morrell may have initially released the addresses because he was unaware of the fairly new and mundane legal revision. Another explanation was that it was a calculation to violate a lesser state law to avoid violating a more serious one.

“One explanation is malfeasance, or a sort of a low-level effort to cover up malfeasance. Another explanation is incompetence.”

Morrell’s decision to release the records a second time to The Lens — after The Lens had already informed him of the state law he violated — is a bit more confounding, Holman said. She said it could have once again been incompetence, or an effort to prove that he didn’t have any special access to the addresses.

“By giving you the information, he’s showing that it wasn’t insider access that led to him getting that information,” Holman said. “He may have weighed that it’s less damaging for him to violate this state law twice than to violate a separate state law that says he used his position of authority to gain access to this information.”

Dillard University professor Dr. Robert Collins had a similar read on Morrell’s decision-making.

“Since he already fulfilled the request for the other person, if he didn’t fulfill the request for you, then I think it would look a little suspicious,” Collins said. “Because why are you being selective in whose requests you’re fulfilling? So he may have felt obligated to fulfill your request.”

There are still several open questions surrounding the letter campaign, including who was behind the initial public records request to access the addresses and whether they were coordinating with Morrell.

In response to a public record’s request, Morrell’s office said it had only received one public records request for election commissioner addresses since June 2020, when the law was changed. It came from someone named Ronee’ Smith.

When asked who Smith was, Morrell referred The Lens to his spokeswoman, who then referred The Lens to the clerk’s office attorneys, who did not answer The Lens’ questions. 

In a brief phone call, Smith declined an interview and said she couldn’t reveal who she worked for or whether she submitted the request on anyone’s behalf.

“I can’t disclose that info.”

Campaign finance records indicate she was a paid canvasser for the Louisiana Democratic Party’s political action committee in 2019. But there aren’t many other public records on Smith that indicate a connection to the clerk election. Lombard’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

It also still isn’t clear who paid for the letter campaign. Morrell told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate that it was paid for with private funds. But the Lombard campaign denied paying for it. And Anthony Marullo — who runs a political action committee that supported Lombard, called People Over Politics — told The Lens that the PAC didn’t pay for it either. 

Collins and Holman said that aside from whether Morrell technically violated state law, the letter campaign illustrated broader issues in the state’s election laws. 

“This is a very Louisiana story,” Holman said. 

Collins objected to the entire idea that chief election officials should be able to participate in electoral politics, saying that it can erode faith in the electoral process. 

“As the old saying goes, it’s really not enough to avoid impropriety, you have to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” Collins said. “For the voters to have confidence in the electoral process, they have to be confident their chief election officer has no actual motives in the outcome of the election.”

Collins pointed out other states prohibit officials like Morrell from endorsing or supporting candidates in the elections they oversee. But even in Louisiana, Collins said New Orleans is an outlier in terms of how politicized the clerk’s office is.

“People ask me, ‘Why do people care about a boring administrative office whose main job is to maintain records?’ “ Collins said. “It’s not about glamour, it’s about jobs.”

Collins said the political power of the office comes from the large number of political appointee jobs in the office that aren’t covered by the city’s Civil Service Commission. That means the clerk can hire and fire employees at will, and those employees aren’t barred from participating in electoral politics in the same way that most city employees are. Collins said that it is routine for officials to instruct their political appointees to support them and whoever they endorse in their elections campaigns.

Holman said that another overarching issue is how hard it is to hold political campaigns and candidates accountable for small, routine violations. 

“There are very few consequences for minor-level misbehavior in campaigns,” she said.

She said in this case, it isn’t even clear whether or not Morrell purposely and knowingly violated the law. But even when there are clear and intentional violations, Holman said the consequences don’t provide much deterrence. 

“Maybe someone is going to pay a fee but they’ll probably pay that fee out of their campaign funds,” she said. “Campaign ads are a little bit of the wild west. It’s a little unregulated. If someone misbehaves it’s really hard to hold them accountable for that. And this is just another example of that. There’s a lot of gray area.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...