MONROE – After a contractor sued the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) over a 2007 incident involving departmental corruption, a unanimous jury decided in favor of the plaintiff, awarding Jeff Mercer his $20 million claim earlier this month.
Mercer filed suit eight years ago after refusing to bribe Willis Jenkins, a DOTD inspector. According to the suit, Jenkins allegedly told Mercer “if you want this job to go better, it’s going to take some green.” Jenkins also allegedly demanded a generator as a bribe.
Mercer said that after reporting the bribe to higher-ups, the corruption continued.
“I can tell you just in the DOTD, that this was something that wasn’t just a lower-level deal," David Doughty, Mercer’s attorney, recently told the Louisiana Record. "This kind of went all the way up to the top."
Doughty said that the DOTD covered up the corruption and punished Mercer for refusing to cooperate with their demands. The DOTD, according to Doughty, required other businesses to have personnel or supervisors with Mercer when he was on the job, which discouraged others from hiring Mercer because they did not want to pay for extra employees, or “ruffle the DOTD’s feathers.” Doughty said that because the DOTD was sending information across the state, eventually, Mercer’s business reputation was hurt across the entire region, and he had to shut his business down.
The suit was originally for $20 million at the time of filing, but because the case took eight years to make it through the courts, several million in interest will be added. Doughty said that because judgments against the state involve money that needs to be appropriated, it could be a good period of time before Mercer sees the funds.
In addition to harming Mercer’s business by making it impossible for him to find work, Doughty said that the DOTD began investigating Mercer to find anything he was doing wrong, including threatening him with federal prosecution when he asked for payments.
“They actually even reported him to the FBI on some false criminal charges," Doughty said. "It was just terrible, what they actually did."
Judge Wilson Rambo of the 4th Judicial District Court heard the case. Four individual DOTD employees were named as defendants – Willis Jenkins, Michael Murphy, John Eason and Barry Lacy. The 12-person jury ruled in Mercer’s favor.
Doughty said that the jury’s unanimous decision shows a statewide turn away from political corruption.
“I think people are tired of this," Doughty said. "I think people are tired of this type of corruption, and things just getting swept under the rug. I think the jury… saw how badly this man had been treated, and it spoke volumes that it was unanimous."
Doughty hopes that the decision opens the door for more justice in Louisiana.
“I love our state," he said. "I think we have a great state. But we have some pockets of corruption that have been there, and I think the DOTD is just one where it has been kind of rampant. I think the light of justice has been shone on it and that some good things are going to happen.”
Sources have reported that the DOTD will appeal the court's ruling.