Breaking a long silence over a bizarre controversy, Orleans Levee District (OLD) President Jim Huey says that, contrary to news reports, he did not authorize a cloak-and-dagger investigation of controversial right-wing radio talk show host Robert Namer, a vocal critic of the levee board. Huey also discounts new allegations by attorney Patrick Klotz, who says the board also conducted private investigations of three of his clients, all critics of OLD themselves.
In an exclusive interview with Gambit Weekly, Huey disputed the reporting of the probe and welcomed investigations of the board by the state Attorney General's office, a state board of private investigators, the media and others. "I take full responsibility for my actions and my decisions," he says.
Jim B. Brown, executive director of the Louisiana State Board of Private Investigator Examiners, says the state PI board is investigating to determine if any state laws governing the use of private investigators were broken. Brown says there is no timetable on the investigation.
"If I'm doing something wrong, hang me," Huey adds, repeating a phrase that has virtually become his motto since Gov. Mike Foster appointed him president of the eight-member levee district in 1996. Huey was first appointed to the board in 1992 by former Gov. Edwin Edwards.
Huey says that, in early 1997, he approved a private investigation into how board documents were "leaving the levee district." At the time, Namer was offering large monetary rewards on WTIX-AM radio for information about any wrongdoing on the board. Huey and board attorneys say they became concerned that sensitive documents might fall into Namer's hands "inappropriately or illegally" and that the contents would be broadcast over his radio show. "We were under a mandate by the Legislature to protect the integrity, documents and records of the levee board," Huey says, citing numerous investigations of OLD, which was beset by political infighting and intrigues at the time.
The private investigation, according to Huey, cost approximately $15,000 -- not $45,000 -- as has been reported in the media. The board president says the additional $30,000 went for legal fees unrelated to investigative work.
Huey says that, in mid-1998, he stopped the probe -- which was monitored by a board attorney and conducted without the knowledge of the rest of the board -- upon learning that the board's private investigation had gone beyond researching court documents and newspaper stories to include secret video surveillance of Namer. "I didn't authorize them to go do some of the goofball things that were done," Huey says.
"I never said, specifically, go out there and hire some private eyes ... and go follow people around or do anything like that," Huey adds.
"When I found out this thing was going in the direction that it was going in 1997," he continues, "I stopped it. I said, 'We're not going to do this. If we do what's right and we keep our place clean, nobody can hurt us anyway.'"
"It did get a little out of hand and a little bizarre," he says, referring to one video surveillance episode in which a pair of trousers was secretly photographed in the studio of Namer's radio station (an incident dubbed "trousercam" by board attorneys).
On Aug. 17, seven levee board members issued a joint statement condemning the district probe as "completely inappropriate." Huey says that news release was "the lowest point" of his nine years on the board. However, he claims, the joint statement resulted from "miscommunication" and fear among board members of how they might be portrayed in pending news reports of the now-controversial probe. Huey says he has since cleared the air with the board and now enjoys its "complete confidence and support."
Huey says the private probe has been "blown out of proportion" in the media at the urging of "disgruntled" critics of the OLD. "Once this goes through the legal process and the facts are presented, it will be shown how ridiculous this situation is," he says.
Gerry Metzger, an attorney for the board who monitored the investigation, declines to discuss the investigation, noting that Namer is suing the board in New Orleans Civil District Court. Metzger does say that he stands by the comments attributed to him as reported by Times-Picayune reporter Frank Donze on Aug. 23, the same report that alleges that Huey ordered the investigation of Namer. In the T-P story, Metzger says the probe was not aimed at silencing Namer's daily radio criticisms against the board. Rather, Metzger says, the probe was begun in response to what both Huey and levee board attorneys perceived as Namer's abuse of his association with Foster.
Namer, who defies quick description, was a close friend and political ally of Foster in 1997. Namer alternately described himself then as both an "investigative reporter" and special assistant to the governor. At the time, Foster recognized Namer as both a friend and a journalist.
However, the governor's office said then that the badge identifying Namer as an aide to Foster was merely an "honorary" title. Metzger told the T-P that Namer was "threatening, harassing and using intimidation tactics to obtain certain information from the levee district. He was always over there getting in people's faces and using this purported official position to make demands."
Huey claims that Metzger and another board attorney did not tell the T-P that Huey authorized the probe of Namer. According to Huey, the board's legal staff has not sought a retraction from the T-P because "it would just make matters worse."
Namer, who has said he broke no laws, claims the board invaded his privacy; in another twist, he is represented by Robert Harvey, the embattled former OLD head whom Huey was appointed to succeed.
The unfolding political drama is being watched closely by the governor's office. Foster and top members of his staff may testify in the case.
Marsanne Golsby, Foster's chief spokesperson, says no one in the Foster Administration had any knowledge of the levee board's secret investigation of Namer. "Nobody up here was involved in any of this," Golsby says, speaking by phone from her office in Baton Rouge. "This all happened before Namer and the governor had their fallout, so there was no reason for the governor to have any interest in there being an investigation of Namer.
"[Gov. Foster] doesn't play that way anyway," Golsby adds, referring to the surveillance tactics employed by the levee district.
The governor's press secretary also says that the Orleans Levee District has been one of Foster's biggest political headaches since he took office. "The [Orleans] levee board has always been one of the most baffling, complicated, challenging, sticky, frustrating and ... politically difficult things this administration has ever had to deal with," she says. "That's not aimed at any individual. It's just the honest truth. There has been more effort made around here to try and deal with the Byzantine politics of the levee board ... than with any other political situation. It's just hard to deal with."
Things may not get any easier.
In addition to Namer, two other arch-conservative Republicans -- who were among Foster's staunchest campaign supporters when he was a state senator polling 3 percent in the 1995 governor's race -- are at the center of the levee board's "spy" saga. Those two are Vincent Bruno, a former Police Association of New Orleans (PANO) president, and Irving Magri, a veteran private investigator, retired NOPD cop and founder of PANO, and the Foster-appointed chair of the state Pardon Board.
Bruno once worked for the levee board as a special assistant, but was fired last May after he told The Times-Picayune that he did nothing to earn his $50,000-a-year salary. Huey says neither the decision to hire or fire Bruno involved the governor. He declines to elaborate, saying it was a personnel matter.
It was through an Aug. 8 civil deposition of Bruno that details of the secret levee board investigation surfaced. Bruno testified that he had overseen the private investigation of Namer; the principal private investigator hired for the levee board probe was the third Foster loyalist, Irving Magri.
To further complicate matters, Vincent Bruno's attorney Patrick Klotz says that a recent board response to a public records request by Namer's attorney suggests that three of Klotz's clients -- Bruno and former top levee board executives Ted Lange and Ulysses Williams -- were also the subject of private investigations by the board. Lange and Williams were both fired by Huey in 1997, and both are appealing their dismissals and suing the board in court.
Responding to a written request from Namer attorney Robert Harvey for levee board "investigative reports, audio or video tapes of surveillance" on 12 individuals, board attorney Gary Benoit wrote in a letter dated Aug. 27 that OLD did not possess any such materials on nine of the names submitted.
But -- without mentioning Bruno, Lange and Williams by name -- Benoit added that any surveillance materials on the three remaining individuals would not be obtainable under the state public records laws. "[T]he OLD claims attorney-client privilege ... gathered in anticipation of litigation or as the consequence of litigation," Benoit wrote in his reply.
"How many other levee board employees have they investigated?" Klotz asks.
Huey says, "To the absolute best of my knowledge -- none." The OLD president adds that "investigations" of Lange and Williams were "due to research related to their suits against the levee board in regard to their terminations."
State Private Investigators Board head Jim Brown says it is common for lawyers to use private investigators in many types of civil litigation cases.
But Klotz still echoes something Namer attorney Robert Harvey once said in a deposition of Bruno: what do the probes of levee board critics "have to do with flood control?"
- Orleans Levee District President Jim Huey says the investigation of Robert Namer has been 'blown out of proportion' in the media. 'Once this goes through the legal process and the facts are presented, it will be shown how ridiculous this situation is,' Huey says.