SHREVEPORT — A lawsuit filed by civic activist and local resident Elliott Stonecipher centers on whether retirement benefits and other financial gains paid to elected Caddo Parish commissioners are unconstitutional.
The lawsuit is slated to go to court this month.
In a November 2015 letter, state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said that more than $255,000 in public money was used to fund Caddo Parish commissioners’ retirement accounts over the last 11 years, despite the fact that the commissioners are part-time employees and therefore prohibited by Louisiana state law from participating in any state or parish retirement systems, The Shreveport Times reported.
Stonecipher told the Louisiana Record that research he conducted in 2010, 2013 and 2014 motivated him to file the lawsuit.
“In that process, I learned that the commission was, to a bizarre and stunning degree, committed to conducting its business in ways which insult even a routine understanding of ethics and transparency,” he said.
“The low-hanging fruit was its retirement for commissioners, known as CPERS, which has been illegal and unconstitutional in Louisiana since Jan. 1, 1997. Extending well into 2015, my work found that there was a true and real self-pay scandal at the commission, extending back to 1993 in the case of illegal salary increases. After meeting with the two commissioners I knew best to show them my work, it was clear the commission would have to be legally forced to cease their corruption and return to taxpayers the money stolen from us.”
In the last year alone, according to public records, $18,000 was deposited into retirement accounts, and commissioners also spent nearly $40,000 of taxpayer money for travel just in 2015.
The lawsuit also alleges that raises and mileage reimbursements are a contradiction of the Louisiana Home Charter Rule, which says that publicly elected, part-time employees cannot participate in a public retirement system supported by taxpayer dollars.
“The Caddo Parish Home Rule Charter of 1984 restricts commissioner pay to a minimal salary — nothing more, nothing else,” Stonecipher said. “The Louisiana Constitution bars the CPERS retirement benefit for Caddo commissioners and all other part-time elected officials in our state.”
Stonecipher said his hope is that taxpayers will succeed in a “severe sanctioning” of the commission and force the commissioners to return all the money.
“The money would be best used in establishing some iteration of a parish office of inspector general,” Stonecipher said. “With all due respect to everyone involved, it is inarguably the case that the 2015 lower-court ruling was erroneous as to the law. Therefore, we need only the fair and apolitical application of law by these three fair and honest appellate court judges.”
The courts will now decide if CPERs, pay raises, and health- and life-insurance benefits are allowed for commissioners.
For now, the commission has voted to opt out of CPERS, will no longer receive pay raises and has updated its travel policy, The Shreveport Times reported.