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Health executive sues state over discrimination

30th May 2017   ·   0 Comments

By C.C. Campbell-Rock
Contributing Writer

Jacob C. Johnson, MPA, CLED, executive director of the quasi-state agency, Health Education Authority of Louisiana, (HEAL), on April 11, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the State of Louisiana and Daryl Purpera, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor (LLA).

As a result of a report filed by the LLA, which appears to be the impetus for the abolishment of HEAL and the loss of his position, Johnson, an African-American hired Baton Rouge-based civil rights attorney Jill Craft.



LLA General Counsel Jenifer Schaye declined to speak about the case’s allegations but offered, “We don’t comment on pending litigation. The Office of Risk Management is handling the case and lawyers are in place. We will defend it vigorously.”

While Johnson admits that the state of Louisiana has a right to abolish the New Orleans-based HEAL, “They don’t have to criminalize me in the process,” Johnson says.

Johnson, who testified before the state’s Legislative Auditor Advisory Council in January 2017, made a formal complaint of discrimination against LLA and asked the panel of legislators to appoint a third party to investigate the LLA for alleged discrimination and targeting African-American leadership of state-empowered agencies. “The LLA met with the Chairman (HEAL) and Board Secretary and alleged misappropriation of funds, manipulation of financial records; alleged I was paying myself travel from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, malfeasance in office, and that I improperly hired a civil servant,” Johnson told the Council.

His petition lays bare the machinations undertaken by the LLA to unseat him. The pronouncements harken back to the days of Alabama segregationists Bull Connors and Governor George Wallace, who supported discrimination against Blacks and worked to stop integration and racial equality during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

The lawsuit points to an orchestrated attempt to get Johnson fired, starting in 2015, in response to pending legislation by Senator Karen Carter Peterson in 2016, which ultimately gave HEAL autonomy and removed it from under the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (LDHH).

“In early 2015, the LDHH, namely Jeff Reynolds (Undersecretary for the Louisiana Department of Health) contacted LLA, namely Wes Gooch with LLA and defendant Purpera. In various meetings, LDHH insisted that the LLA conduct an “audit” of HEAL with the express purpose of discrediting Petitioner (Johnson) and securing Petitioner’s termination from employment,” according to the lawsuit. An audit team was put together and… “from its inception the audit team was directly instructed by the defendants to target Johnson and find anything it can to discredit” him.

“Throughout Petitioner’s initial interaction with LDHH, namely Reynolds, Reynolds made repeated disparaging comments regarding the fact that the Petitioner is African-American and questioning how and/or if Petitioner’s was ‘qualified’ for his job.”

However, suspecting a set-up, Johnson began tape recording all of his interactions with defendant LLA and its personnel. One auditor, Justin James, also an African-American “advised Johnson that had been instructed as had the “audit team” to separate Johnson from the HEAL Board in order to secure his termination.”

“James, himself an African American, also advised Petitioner that the audit was not being conducted for legitimate reasons and that it was actually being conducted to secure Petitioner’s termination and because Petitioner is African American,” the petition continued.

“In one of the recorded interactions on 7/1/16, James relayed to Petitioner that he, Petitioner, was being scrutinized like Justice Johnson when she was challenged by her colleagues.” A concerted efforts by her peers was made to keep Chief State Supreme Court Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson from ascending to the highest position on the State’s highest court. That effort was documented in a Louisiana Weekly article by this writer.

James told Jacob Johnson that he and LLA had conducted audits of lower courts and “began finding stuff that the lower courts were doing and then they started piling it on Chief Justice Johnson because they wanted her to jump, to remind her you’re still a n*****… You may still be the first black Chief Justice, but we want you to know you’re still a n*****.”

“It’s about certain individuals in the Legislative Auditor’s Office wanting to make themselves appear to be something big—larger than life… They’re looking to make an example out of HEAL. The audit was about “Let’s get this guy. That’s what it was (tie a noose around his neck and let him hang there)… I guarantee they are drumming something up (LLA and Purpera)… They’re trying to… ultimately eliminate HEAL,” James added.

The lawsuit goes on to document other instances of a conspiracy to eliminate HEAL and Johnson and bring the agency back under state control. At stake is $800 million in bond capacity, property in downtown New Orleans, and lucrative garage revenues. Peterson’s 2016 SB77 giving HEAL expanded autonomy and bonding capacity was signed into law by Governor John Bel Edwards continued at a fevered pitch. The LLA published audit findings on HEAL’s financial and operations status in Dec. 2016 and Jan. 2017.

The lawsuit maintains that the LLA’s findings were inaccurate at best and totally false, at worse. “Contained in both draft audits initially released by the defendants on December 28, 2017, and again on January 23, 2017, were false, defamatory, slanderous and libelous statements disseminated by defendants to the public and in the media, including television stations throughout Louisiana and to media, falsely accusing Petitioner of improper and illegal travel and reimbursement, improper organizational practices, improper and illegal pay practices, improper hiring practices, and falsifying public records, for which Petitioner sues for herein.”

“On January 27, 2017, after issuing the “audit” reports and publicly accusing Petitioner of fraud, malfeasance, theft, illegal activities, misuse/abuse of state funds, defendant LLA, through James, admitted that there was “no fraud,” “there was no misappropriation,” “there was no abuse,” “or anything like that.”

“The statements by the defendants were, additionally, accusations of criminal conduct against Petitioner constituting defamation.”

Attorney Jill Craft had not returned calls for comment on the lawsuit by publication deadline.

A court date has not been set for Johnson’s lawsuit because the state, according to a source, has sought a continuance. The unnamed official also said Attorney Craft did not put all of the damning information in the lawsuit and there is more evidence forthcoming.

In spite of Johnson’s claims of discrimination, Senator Karen Carter Peterson pushed through Senate Bill 224, which did abolish HEAL, its Board, and removed its executive director and staff. SB 224 passed in the State Senate on May 3, by a vote of 31- 1. The dissenting vote was cast by Senator Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans).

Another source close to the situation told The Louisiana Weekly that Senator Peterson did not read the contents of Johnson’s lawsuit and that she was dismayed to learn of the existence of tapes concerning Johnson’s discrimination complaints.

On May 17, Johnson’s supporters attended a hearing on SB224, in the House Health & Welfare Committee at the state Capitol, and were told a vote on the measure was postponed indefinitely.

“Justice & Beyond is in full support of efforts to stop the tyranny of the LLA. Legislators must take this business on. We have an agency of the legislature committing legal lynching,” said J&B Co-Chair Pat Bryant.

Supporters of Johnson want Senator Peterson to rescind the SAB224, in light of the LLA’s track record of targeting African-American officials; among them, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, and Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell.

This article originally published in the May 29, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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