BATON ROUGE — A Baton Rouge construction development executive is suing the state of Louisiana and an auditor for allegedly accusing him of mismanaging funds simply because he is black.
According to the complaint filed in the 19th Judicial District Court in the parish of East Baton Rouge, Jacob Johnson was hired as the executive director of the quasi-public Health Education Authority of Louisiana (HEAL) in October 2011. He said his position at the medical facility development entity was compromised when he was audited by state auditor and co-defendant Daryl Purpera.
Johnson claims Purpera attempted to “tie a noose around his neck and let him hang there” by falsely reporting that he was stealing money from HEAL. A press release that was coupled with the audit report said that while HEAL's income had increased by 153 percent from 2012 to 2016, the entity had not developed a new medical property since 2004.
The complaint states that Purpera's audit report specifically accused Johnson of "malfeasance, misgovernment, illegal activities, and misappropriation of funds."
After discovering the damaging report, Johnson allegedly spoke to workers at the Louisiana Legislative Audit office and was told that the undersecretary, Jeff Reynolds, was making insulting and racist comments about him. Johnson said Reynolds believed a black man was not competent enough to handle a high position such as being a HEAL executive, and he allegedly told Purpera to sabotage the report.
On April 10, a bill was introduced by Sen. Karen Carter Peterson to abolish HEAL and transfer its responsibilities to the governor's office.
Though Johnson alleges that he has recordings of employees revealing that the audit was meant to ruin him, the likelihood of a win for the plaintiff is still uncertain, as it is unclear what evidence the defendants will present.
"The problem for courts and for public opinion in cases like this is that both sides make claims that are in general plausible, but in particular cases sometimes difficult to prove one way or the other," Cornell Law School Professor Robert C. Hockett told the Louisiana Record.
"On the one hand, it is not unheard of for people with bigoted attitudes or political agendas to mask their real motives by talking in seemingly neutral terms like 'incompetence,' 'mismanagement' and 'corruption,'" Hockett said. "On the other hand, it also is not unheard of for people who are actually incompetent or corrupt to try to 'play the race card' against those who work to hold them to account."
Johnson is seeking an unspecified amount as reimbursement for defamation of his character, loss of earning capacity, medical expenses, emotional distress and other damages.
"In the end, the only way to ascertain which side is right is to look carefully at the evidence and interpret it," Hockett said. "But sometimes there isn't much of it, meaning that people end up having to follow their gut instincts in deciding whom to believe."