Amite River Basin Commission Trial

Monday, March 24, 2014 - Wednesday, April 2, 2014



An interesting civil trial transpired in Judge Wilson's Fields' 19th JDC Courtroom.  Though estimates varied, had the plaintiffs prevailed, about one taxpayer in five in the Greater Baton Rouge area may have eventually wound up with a surprise check in the mail.

The trial entailed a group of taxpayers, represented as a class, who sued the Amite River Basin Commission (ARBC) entailing what they contended were vastly overpaid property taxes covering construction of the Comite River Diversion Canal.  The project was originally envisioned after the massive 1983 flood which resulted in significant backwater flooding long after rains had stopped.  The concept behind the project entails providing a sort of relief valve (the Canal) to divert water from the Comite River into the Mississippi River.  By lowering the water level of the Comite River, water levels would also be lowered in the Amite River basin in flood-prone areas such as Port Vincent and French Settlement.

What was in dispute was the amount of funding for which the ARBC (through local property owners) is responsible.  The original estimate of the project’s construction costs was approximately $120 million (the current estimate is $210 - $225 million).  Of that $120 million, the Army Corps of Engineers (through the Federal government) was to be responsible for 70% of the construction costs, or $84 million.  The remaining $36 million cost was originally designated to be $30 million to the State of Louisiana, and $6 million to the ARBC.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys submitted evidence into trial, most notably the original House of Representative Bill authorizing the project, which indicated that $6 million was the full extent of the construction costs for which the ARBC was responsible.  To date, by way of a 3-mill property tax approved by voters in the District in 2000, combined with a renewal (at 2.65 mills) of that tax in 2010, plaintiff attorneys, led by Donna Grodner, Joel Porter, Ashly Earl, and Steve Irving, alleged that the actual collections on the tax through December 31, 2013 approximated a $24.9 million.  The suit sought a refund of the alleged $18.9 million overpayment.  Defense attorneys, led by Larry S. Bankston, Jenna Linn, Daniel Collarini, and Wayne Maldonado, contended that there never was any intent to cap the ARBC’s contribution to construction costs at $6 million.  They asserted, in sharp contrast to plaintiffs’ attorneys, that the Canal project remains viable and is fully ongoing.

For a civil trial, plenty of fireworks exploded.  They began in opening arguments when Joel Porter, attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that taxpayers in the District have been “bamboozled,” that they’ve been “hoodwinked,” and that the ARBC has engaged in “taxation by misrepresentation.”  At various stages in the trial, all four of the plaintiffs’ attorneys accused ARBC Executive Director Deitmar Rietschier of varying degrees of financial mismanagement and deceiving voters in order to “keep a project alive that is on life support.”  The attorneys argued that Mr. Rietschier has an ulterior motive for vastly over collecting on the tax in order to fund his own $93,000+ annual salary along with his executive secretary's $44,000 salary.   The executive secretary, Ms. Toni Guitrau, also serves as the Mayor of the Village of French Settlement, a position which pays only $500/month.  To buttress their arguments of mismanagement and deceit, plaintiffs' attorneys presented evidence at trial and quizzed ARBC board members, Mr. Rietschier, and Ms. Guitrau in asserting the following points before the jury:

Defense counsel Larry Bankston countered points 1 and 2 above by emphasizing that Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the high water levels of the Mississippi River (for which $4 million was diverted from the Canal project to address) in 2011 had indeed caused the Army Corps to have higher priorities than the Canal project.  He emphasized that those events triggered delays in Federal funding. for the Canal project. 

Defense attorneys, largely led by Mr. Bankston, who posed 90%+ of witness questions, argued that the most expensive phase of the project is the Lilly Bayou project along U. S. Hwy 61 and LA Hwy 964.  According to testimony by Bobby Duplantier, an Engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, both phases of the Lilly Bayou segment of the project are 95% complete.  Mr. Duplantier also testified that $4 million of the project's funds were diverted in 2011 to assist with alleviating the high-water levels on the Mississippi River.  Mr. Duplantier did testify that, Lilly Bayou near-completion status notwithstanding, that phase of the project experienced funding shortfalls which caused the Army Corps of Engineers to strongly consider a "Termination for Convenience," which entails the exercising of a clause to terminate the construction contract through no fault of the other party and without financial implications on the terminating party.

Defense attorneys also demonstrated the minimal impact of the annual tax on a typical homeowner's tax bill.  During cross examination of Mr. Terry Campbell, who was the lead plaintiff in the class action suit, Mr. Bankston presented Mr. Campbell's tax bill to him, and it showed the ARBC portion of his annual taxes to be $5.16.  Mr. Campbell responded, "that's a big deal to me, sir.  That's a meal.  It's something to eat."  Mr. Bankston asked Mr. Campbell if he supported the project, and he responded that he did.  When asked if he voted for the tax or the renewal, however, he said that he did not and volunteered that he votes "against all taxes."  Plaintiff attorney Ashly Earl, upon redirect of Mr. Campbell, inquired, "Mr. Campbell, you don't make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year like the defense attorneys sitting at that table, do you?"  Mr. Campbell responded that he did not and relayed that he was on "fixed income."  Mr. Bankston emphasized to the jury in closing arguments, in an obvious throwback to Mr. Campbell's responses to his questions on the tax that "everyone wants the benefits the Canal project will bring but they just don't want to pay for it.  Well, we all hate paying taxes."

The plaintiffs' attorneys had one apparent serious blunder for which the jury may have extracted a huge price.  Plaintiff attorney Steve Irving asked ARBC Executive Secretary Toni Guitrau, "don't you think your (then) $38,000 salary is excessive given that you don't have anything more than a high school education?"  Several jurors may have potentially taken that particular line of questioning by Mr. Irving as potentially condescending and chauvinistic.  In anticipation of any such potential perception of that nature by the jury, defense attorney Larry S. Bankston pounced on that one question (out of literally hundreds of questions) in his closing arguments.  Mr. Bankston relayed to the jury that he was "offended and insulted" by Mr. Irving's line of questioning and openly asked of the jury, "why should Ms. Guitrau not have the right to advance herself?" 

The verdict of the 8-female, 4-male jury?  11-1 in favor of defendants.