DeSoto District Attorney Gary Evans and his staff are prohibited from investigating the sheriff and his deputies in connection with alleged abuses of an overtime ticket-writing program called LACE, a district judge ruled Friday following a five-hour court hearing fraught with legal wrangling.
District Judge Charles Adams based his decision on his belief District Attorney Gary Evans in the eyes of the public could not maintain the “independence and impartiality” that is required for the investigation. Adams said that was evidenced by what took place in the courtroom during the afternoon hearing.
At times contentious, the court session was punctuated by multiple but unsuccessful attempts to have the proceedings stopped and even throw Adams off the case. Motions were filed and procedures were argued before a courtroom filled with spectators.
Sheriff Jayson Richardson agreed with the ruling, saying afterwards he welcomes an investigation into “supposed wrongdoing” but wants it led by someone not associated with the district attorney’s office. Richardson contends Evans wanted to convene a grand jury weeks before next month’s special sheriff’s election in attempt to influence the outcome in favor of his preferred candidate.
Richardson and Mansfield Police Chief Gary Hobbs are vying for the remainder of the unexpired term of longtime Sheriff Rodney Arbuckle who retired earlier this year. The election is Nov. 6.
The back-and-forth about the LACE investigation sandwiched a separate but related matter that could lead to a fine or jail time for two employees of the district attorney’s office. Adams found Assistant District Attorney Cloyce Clark and chief investigator Kem Jones in contempt of court after witnesses testified seeing them taking photographs or videos in the courtroom Monday in violation of court rules.
Bailiff Brett Jones said at the judge’s order he reviewed Clark’s phone, which Clark handed to him and open to the photo album. Brett Jones said he saw four photos that had been taken of attorneys and sheriff’s office personnel inside the courtroom, but they had been recently deleted. Clark described them as “personal” pictures, and said he wasn’t aware it was wrong to take photographs in the courtroom when it was not in session.
Kem Jones refused to answer questions about the contents of his two phones, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. When he was on the stand later, Jones again refused to answer questions about the phones, which Adams has in his possession after they were returned from the Bossier City Marshal’s Office.
Clark and Jones will be sentenced at 9 a.m. Monday for the contempt of court.
Meanwhile, Assistant District Attorney Lea Hall told Adams they will appeal his ruling recusing Evans. The state Attorney General’s office will be notified about Evans’ recusal, Adams said, putting them in charge of any investigation.
Hall vigorously argued throughout the afternoon against the hearing even moving forward since at the beginning of it he filed a motion notifying the court Evans had voluntarily removed himself from any investigation of Richardson and the sheriff’s office as a whole.
But Richardson’s attorney, Michael Magner, pointed out that did not resolve the matter of the individual deputies. He maintained their belief Evans should not have any dealings with the LACE investigation, not only because of his alleged political involvement but also because his office also was part of an investigative audit involving alleged LACE payroll abuses.
At one point Hall said moving forward was “a disservice to the entire parish” and added on a personal note he considered the entire issue that’s putting the parish’s elected officials as odds as “ridicules.”
Richardson said in a court motion filed Oct. 5 that Evans was motivated by politics to present a case to the secret panel because of his friendship and support of Hobbs. Hall said during Friday’s hearing that’s an allegation Evans denies.
The motion was filed hours after Evans appeared before a group of state lawmakers in Baton Rouge who review audit findings. Evans was there to respond to findings concerning his office’s handling of LACE.
But Evans instead focused on the sheriff’s office and announced he was calling a grand jury for Oct. 8. He said theft was “rampant” in the sheriff’s office and he needed auditors to release an audit report that’s being conducted on the sheriff’s office’s LACE program.
State Auditor Daryl Purpera said he would not be pulled into politics surrounding the election and would only release the report when it’s completed, and it’s not.
A recording of Evans’ appearance before the panel was submitted during Friday’s hearing. While Evans was in the courtroom, he was not called to testify. Instead, the questions were posed to Kem Jones.
Kem Jones answered Magner’s questions about the audit findings and also reviewed copies of some of the deputies’ LACE time sheets. He said when Evans took over LACE administration he wanted more detailed time sheets. The D.A.’s office did not start paying the deputies who worked LACE until Evans began his diversion program, Jones said, adding Evans “never paid a penny to the sheriff’s office for LACE.”
The district attorney’s office does not consider itself a “victim” of LACE,” Hall noted.
LACE is a program that goes back decades that allows off-duty law enforcement officers to work traffic enforcement. Most of their time is spent on interstates targeting speeders.
Early in 2017, Evans began questioning the LACE set-up, he said after a DeSoto Parish police juror said the criminal court fund, one of the recipients of LACE ticket revenue, was losing money.
Arbuckle pulled his deputies off of LACE in June 2017. State troopers continue to work it – after a brief hiatus when the LSP commander called a halt to it to revise policies and procedures following payroll padding allegations among some troopers in South Louisiana. Evans also has a contract with the Mansfield Police Department.