Henry Brown was one of the most powerful judges in Louisiana -- chief judge of the state appeals court that stretches across northern Louisiana.
Brown's 27-year career on the bench ended last year with his abrupt resignation amid allegations he and a law clerk abused their positions to compromise the judicial process.
He currently is also under fire for his decision to overturn a multimillion dollar judgment in favor of a businessman in Ouachita Parish. That man accuses him of judicial activism and failure to recuse himself in a case where he had a conflict of interest.
The story, detailed through hundreds of pages of court documents, involves a dead millionaire in Shreveport; that man’s missing fortune; a web of close relationships; a clandestine effort to meddle in the judicial process; the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development; and the businessman, whose livelihood was heavily dependent on state highway projects.
That businessman, Jeff Mercer, whose office was located east of Monroe, subcontracted on a DOTD street project in Monroe in 2007, doing work on the project’s drainage system. He alleged that a DOTD inspector demanded a kickback from him. Mercer said he refused and blew the whistle. He said DOTD employees retaliated by holding him to a double standard, changing job specifications and making him re-do work.
"The DOTD basically ran him out of business,” said Mercer’s attorney, David Doughty of Rayville. “They made it so hard on him and his various jobs.”
Mercer sued DOTD. The state denied the accusations and the suit went to trial. A Ouachita Parish jury returned a $20 million judgment in Mercer’s favor.
DOTD appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in Shreveport. In an opinion authored by Brown, a three-judge panel overturned the verdict.
"I'd say it's very rare" for an appeals court to overturn a unanimous jury verdict, Doughty said.
Mercer is trying to overturn that opinion, saying it amounted to judicial activism. Among the alleged errors: the appeals judges essentially investigated the case and that Brown should have recused himself on the ground his father worked for the highway department for more than 40 years. They allege Brown tried to wield too much influence over the appeals court and some of its decisions.
"Oh, it's deep,” Mercer said. “It sounds unbelievable."
Mercer points to a Shreveport case to support his allegations against Brown – one where a huge civil suit has been under way for years and where a criminal investigation is ongoing.
The key players in that case:
- Fred Houston, a widower who amassed a small fortune before his death in 2008.
- Hahn Williams, Houston's financial advisor and executor of his will. They had met when Houston went to collect on a life insurance policy on his late wife. Houston's obituary described Williams as "his friend who he thought of as a daughter."
- Williams and Judge Brown had a close personal relationship.
- Trina Chu, Williams' longtime friend and a law clerk for Brown.
After Houston died, LSU’s veterinary school got tipped off that Houston had left them the vast majority of his estate for oncological research, but they hadn’t been told about the donation. Williams, who over time had become involved in all of Houston’s financial affairs, was sued for breaching her fiduciary duty as the trustee and executrix of Houston’s trust and estate, charging exorbitant fees for her work and diverting money to herself. A Caddo District Court jury ordered her to pay back $1.5 million, an estimated three-quarters of his estate.
Williams denied wrongdoing, saying she was a good steward of Houston's money and earned what she got.
Two weeks after the November 2016 verdict, Williams sold her house to Brown, Caddo District Court property records show. She continued living at the house.
Williams appealed the Caddo Parish verdict to the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in Shreveport. Brown recused himself from hearing her case but court records and a Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office investigative report state his law clerk of six months, Trina Chu, did not keep an arms-length distance.
One day in August 2018, Judge Brown's secretary checked a copy machine and saw that someone had tried to print documents that appeared to be confidential information from the computer files of judges who were deciding the Williams case. The copy machine had shut down when it ran out of toner. Caddo sheriff’s detectives were asked to investigate.
Reports from a detective, filed as part of Mercer’s appeal to have his case reheard, said someone had hacked into one of the court’s confidential files. That file contained documents from the judges who were deciding the Williams case, investigators said.
Investigators said Brown’s law clerk had downloaded documents to her own flash drives and e-mailed legal advice to Williams, who was a longtime friend, and who then forwarded some of that communication to Judge Brown via his Second Circuit court e-mail address.
Investigators said that one of the judges hearing the Williams appeal, Jeff Cox, filed a complaint with them saying he felt intimidated by Judge Brown to change his position on the Williams appeal.
A three-judge panel of judges hearing the appeal ruled against Williams on Aug. 15, 2018, and upheld the verdict. Cox wrote the opinion.
Word of events surrounding the Williams appeal got to the Louisiana Supreme Court and on Sept. 27, 2018, the court’s chief justice banned Brown from the appeals court house. Brown submitted notice of his retirement the next day.
Neither Brown nor Chu returned calls for comment from KTBS News. A KTBS reporter went to Williams’ house in effort to speak with her but she appeared to have moved out.
The Williams case is still ongoing as she fights the accusations she mismanaged Houston’s money and estate. She also says attorneys representing Houston’s estate are charging exorbitant fees. LSU and attorneys appointed to represent Houston’s estate continue trying to get the money.
What happened at the appeals court house and to the computer files led to a criminal investigation.
Caddo sheriff’s detectives made an initial conclusion criminal charges were not warranted in the computer hacking. But the Caddo district attorney’s office felt the case needed more work and has taken over the investigation, trying to determine if anyone else was involved. According to a source, the Louisiana Attorney General’s office has been asked to review the case.
District Attorney James Stewart refused comment, saying it is an open investigation.
Mercer wants to see the entire case file in hopes it will help him with his own lawsuit and has filed a public records request. The Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office are fighting that request, saying it is an ongoing investigation.
Williams, who has said the accusations against her amount to character assassination, continues to resist having to make restitution to beneficiaries of Houston’s will. The Louisiana Supreme Court has refused to hear her case.
The civil judgment against Williams, and in favor of LSU’s veterinary school, is now in excess of $2 million, with interest. Williams has not paid anything, attorneys and court records say.
Attorneys appointed in Caddo Parish to represent Houston’s estate are now trying to force Williams into bankruptcy in an effort to get more financial records and find out where the money went. Brown is her lawyer as she fights the effort, attorneys in the case said. The matter is pending before a bankruptcy court judge.