Much of the news that comes out of Breaux Bridge usually occurs leading up to the first weekend in May each year as area residents prepare for attending the Crawfish Festival. This widely known event is normally the highlight of the City. But there is a lot of buzz around town and it has nothing to do with a festival, rather it’s just Buz.
For the past few months, local news media is replete with reports of criminal activity in the City of Breaux Bridge. A recent story also focused on social media post made by or which Chief Buz LeBlanc, who is less than a year into a four-year term, had engaged in. But that is not the real buzz around town though most of it revolves around Buz. What people are talking about is being blocked and censored from posting to the Breaux Bridge Police Department Facebook page; being subjected to search warrants signed by district judges who were not presented with the complete facts, especially exculpatory information; payroll irregularities, ethics complaints and issues involving the handling of evidence all seem to be just the tip of many scandals.
Public Records Requests
The talk around town about evidence problems within the Breaux Bridge Police Department is very intriguing. After all, what exactly are we talking about when a vague term like “evidence problems” is mentioned. Are we talking about paperwork or chain of custody issues? Security issues concerning the evidence room? Issues of degradable samples not being stored appropriately? Are we talking about items going missing from the evidence room? That’s an issue which seems to happen much more frequently in local law enforcement departments than anyone is willing to admit. Well, you never know unless you look at the records.
Almost two months ago, on June 16, 2023, two public records requests were sent to Breaux Bridge Police Chief Buz LeBlanc seeking records of “inspections, inventories and/or audits of evidence” and which would show the “person or persons responsible for evidence maintenance” at the Breaux Bridge Police Department for the period of June 15, 2022, through June 15, 2023. In response, Chief LeBlanc claimed that these records were exempted from public inspection by Louisiana Revised Statute 44:3 and 40:2531. We then asked Chief LeBlanc about his very vague assertion that LARS 44:3 applied and questioned the applicability LARS 40:2531, but received no response.
Just because a record is held by a public office or a public official in Louisiana doesn’t mean it’s a public record. However, the courts have consistently upheld that the right of the public to have access to public records as a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution. Provisions of the constitution which must be construed liberally in favor of free and unrestricted access to the records, and that access can be denied only when a law, specifically and unequivocally, provides otherwise. (Title Research Corp. v. Rausch, App. 1 Cir.1983, 433 So.2d 1105)
Whenever there is doubt as to whether the public has the right of access to certain records, the doubt must be resolved in favor of the public’s right to see. To allow otherwise would be an improper and arbitrary restriction on the public’s constitutional rights. But the language of the constitution, “[n]o person shall be denied the right to examine public documents, except in cases established by law”, has allowed for a myriad of legislatively created exemptions and judicially created balancing acts which have eroded, if not killed, the original spirit of public access and transparency.
The “law enforcement agency” exemption Chief LeBlanc cites with a very broad brush is not intended to be an absolute impediment to obtaining records held by a police agency. It specifically defines which records are exempted. But when no actual exemption exists within the statute, men of such character as Chief LeBlanc seem to swing it like a sledgehammer. Unfortunately, Chief LeBlanc is not alone in this regard. The second “exemption” cited by Chief Buz LeBlanc is LARS 40:2531, which pertains to the “rights of law enforcement officers while under investigation.” There is no specific exemption found in this statute or in the list of Title 40 exceptions outlined in 44:4.1(B)(26). So, what is he talking about?
Perhaps in refusing to provide the identity of the evidence custodian(s) for the Breaux Bridge Police Department, Chief LeBlanc meant to cite LARA 40:2532 which seeks to protect the “release of personal information” in certain situations with respect to an investigation of a law enforcement officer. That’s still a stretch, but Chief LeBlanc is new at this and past experience has shown he’s not very good at interpreting or following the rules. But all of this begs the question – who is under investigation and who is performing the investigation?
Louisiana Revised Statute 44:11 provides for an exemption of the release of personal information concerning public employees. And yet, LeBlanc and the City of Breaux Bridge were less concerned with protecting the personal information of police officers before he took office. While campaigning for his current post Chief LeBlanc requested and received a list of each and every member of the Breaux Bridge Police Department along with their home address. LeBlanc then used that list to send letters to members of the department; letters which many described as being “intimidating.”
In further attempts to hone in on the true nature of the “evidence problems” and other topics being discussed around town, on June 22, 2023, we sent an additional public records request to Chief LeBlanc. This time we received a response from an attorney. Perhaps the stress of having to defend his exemptions or the effort it takes to type an e-mail was just too much. Of course he could just do what any transparent elected official would do – make the record available for public inspection! Or could it be that much bigger problems within the department are being concealed. That would certainly explain why Chief LeBlanc never gives his departmental report at City Council meetings. He attends. However, his underling, Terry Latiolais, is the one who delivers the report and fields questions while the Chief sits in silence.
Back to that round of requests, we asked for items such as:
- Evidence room entry logs for the period of June 15, 2022 through June 15, 2023.
- Documents provided to members of the Breaux Bridge Police Department notifying them of an administrative investigation, commonly referred to as notice of investigation forms/letters issued during the period January 1, 2023 thru June 15, 2023.
In response to these two specific request, and others, the attorney for Chief Buz LeBlanc repeatedly stated “we have been advised that this documentation forms the basis of both a criminal investigation” and/or “an internal affairs investigation.” Although we asked for clarification neither LeBlanc nor his attorney has offered any further explanation as to who is claiming that these documents are the subject of investigation. They have also not indicated why every single evidence room entry log for the period of an entire year (June 15, 2022 thru June 15, 2023) is the basis of both a criminal investigation and an internal affairs investigation. Who is conducting the investigation? Breaux Bridge Police Department? St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office? You would think that something of these size and scope would demand the attention of the Louisiana State Police. Especially considering that the same agency who created the criminal act can hardly be trusted with the responsibility of investigating it.
It’s issues like these and the Brady Bunch at the St. Martinville Police Department which make you wonder if that stench along the Teche has more to do with the management of local police agencies and less with the District Attorney’s Office. People like O’Neil Darden would probably disagree though.
Another item we have been delving into is an extreme irregularity in pay to the Assistant Chief of Police, Terry Latiolais. According to publicly available information Latiolais makes around $55,000 annually. However, in 2020 that figure almost doubled with Latiolais reportedly making around $98,000. Sources have indicated that Latiolais was in control of approving the Breaux Bridge Police Department payroll during this period of time. A public records request submitted to the City of Breaux Bridge to further evaluate this situation has yet to be answered. Although ignored, the issue doesn’t appear to have gone unnoticed. Irregularities in pay were allegedly noted at one point by Mayor Ricky Calais himself when he observed the Breaux Bridge Police Department salaries to be over budget by approximately $41,000.00. Nothing to see there folks!
Additionally, we have requested records regarding whether a complaint filed with Chief Buz LeBlanc regarding allegations of an officer “double dipping” and receiving payment from non-public sources while on-duty was ever reported to the Louisiana Board of Ethics. Louisiana revised statute 42:1111 makes such actions unlawful. And when the “agency head” is informed of such allegations they have a duty to report it to the Board of Ethics. Unfortunately, “truth is treason in the empire of lies” where cover-up, concealment and suppression become the norm.
Lastly, this morning the Breaux Bridge Police Civil Service Board held its meeting. The notice we received showed an item demoting Sergeant Raiford Ballard by rejecting him from the working test period. The move, if approved by the Board, would have moved Ballard back to the position of Police Officer, leaving the City of Breaux Bridge with one remaining Sergeant. But the matter was never called up and the meeting agenda was changed prior to the start of the meeting: the Ballard matter inexplicably vanished from the agenda.
As it turns out, this action had not been brought before the City Council, so it could be heard tonight. According to the City Council meeting notice posted, Chief LeBlanc has requested an executive session to “discuss proposed disciplinary action against and/or professional competence and positions held of various personnel of Breaux Brigade Police Department.” Exactly who is the target of discipline by Chief LeBlanc? Is it Ballard? Is it Latiolais? Could the topic revolve around the “evidence issues” which essentially admits the evidentiary process in Breaux Bridge has been compromised for over a year? If that’s the case, it could mean a lot of fun for criminal defense attorneys handling cases of subjects arrested and investigated by the Breaux Bridge Police. Whatever it is, the vague notice makes it apparent that the public can’t be trusted with that sort of transparency. After all, they may start paying attention and attending public meetings if they were to learn what’s been going on in their local government. Just ask the City of Youngsville about that!