Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (Image via RLDF.org).
The controversy surrounding Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office got a new set of legs this week thanks to a press conference Landry held Tuesday that was largely aimed at criticizing media organizations and a whistleblower who complained that Landry’s former criminal director Pat Magee was sexually harassing women.
After the press conference, the whistleblower revealed himself to be Matthew Derbes, a former assistant attorney general who worked in the criminal division as the deputy to Magee. Derbes announced he had resigned from his job working for Landry Monday evening.
Louisiana state government has had its fair share of sexual misconduct scandals. The office of Gov. John Bel Edwards, former Secretary of State Tom Schedler, LSU and, most recently, Louisiana’s affordable housing agency have all dealt with public allegations of sexual misconduct against staff in recent years. But the attorney general’s controversy is different, mostly because of Landry’s approach to the accusations.
Typically, Louisiana elected officials and government leaders have either apologized — or at least stayed silent — after their agencies get accused of fostering sexual misconduct. Landry has not. Instead, he is attempting to blame media organizations and Derbes for problems related to the allegations.
The following is a list of the ways the sexual misconduct scandal in Landry’s office is different from others in Louisiana:
It’s not just about sexual misconduct anymore
This controversy was initially limited to Magee and his alleged sexual harassment, but it has now expanded well beyond that particular issue.
Derbes had complained about alleged sexual misconduct about Magee to the attorney general’s human resource department, but now that he has resigned, he’s also raising alarms about other potential misconduct in the attorney general’s office.
In his resignation letter to Landry, Derbes also accuses Landry’s office of giving “preferential treatment” to a politically-connected individual facing 20 counts of child pornography charges involving children under the age of 13. He also says Landry’s office is misusing insurance fraud support funds that are legally only supposed to be used for a certain function.
Landry is personally accusing the whistleblower of inappropriate behavior
Landry and members of his staff spent much of Tuesday’s press conference listing problems with the whistleblower’s conduct, while not admitting that the person they were criticizing for behaving badly was the same person who had complained about Magee’s alleged harassment of women in the office.
When asked if the “high level member of the criminal division” that they spent a good deal of the press conference criticizing was also the whistleblower, Landry and his staff said they couldn’t answer that question because of litigation they expected — presumably an employment lawsuit from Derbes about being forced out of his job.
Derbes had not been public about his identity at the time of Landry’s press conference, but many of the characteristics Landry used to describe the person he was accusing of misconduct fit Derbes’ profile.
Landry not only described this person as a “high level member of the criminal division,” but he also described the person as a man and as a person who had recently resigned. The attorney general also went on to say that this person had not reported “inappropriate comments and actions” by coworkers in a timely manner as he was required to do so at the Department of Justice. Derbes is a man who held a high-ranking position in the criminal division who recently resigned and had complained about sexual harassment.
Landy went on to say this high-ranking man in the criminal division — presumably Derbes — had sent inappropriate text messages of a sexist nature to other employees in the Department of Justice and “third parties.” Landry said his office had launched an investigation into this person’s behavior, but the person resigned before it was concluded.
He went on to say the person had been investigated previously for creating a social media account to impersonate a woman official who worked for a previous governor. Derbes’ attorney, Jill Craft, said her client created a social media account focused on a member of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cabinet several years ago, but the issue had been resolved.
Landry said this person’s troubling text messages cannot be released because the attorney general expects the person to sue the Department of Justice. Derbes has not filed a lawsuit yet, but has hired Craft, one of Baton Rouge’s top employment lawyers. Craft said Derbes has also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about Landry’s department, a filing that usually precedes an employment lawsuit.
“The main point that [Derbes] wishes to convey is that it is a sad day when the chief law enforcement officer decides that instead of addressing the significant problems of sexual harassment in the workplace, he chooses instead of attack the person who stands up,” Craft said.
Landry talked about the whistleblower, but blamed others for revealing his identity
On Tuesday, Landry described the person who complained about sexual harassment in his office as a top officer in the criminal division, as a man and as a person who recently resigned from the Department of Justice. Landry gave that description during a press conference that was broadcast on Facebook through a live feed.
Craft also said documents the attorney general’s office turned over to Advocate reporter Andrea Gallo and her attorney Scott Sternberg last week included the whistleblower’s job title — a job title that only Derbes held.
Yet Landry on Tuesday blamed Gallo and Sternberg for revealing Derbes’ identity. He said it was the “newspaper’s choice” to try and find out who Derbes was last week.
Gallo, in an article she wrote about those documents last week, did not identify the whistleblower publicly or list information about him that would cause Derbes to be identified easily by readers. Derbes was not named by any media organization until he went public Tuesday.
The whistleblower says he was forced to resign from Landry’s office
Derbes said that after he complained about Magee sexually harassing women in the office, he was retaliated against and treated badly, according to Craft.
He was denied a promotion he thought he deserved, and while he wasn’t demoted on paper, Derbes had been told he would essentially be stripped of all of his job duties, Craft said.
“Matthew has been with that office for 15 years. He has handled some of the most high profile criminal cases that office has ever had,” Craft said. “For him to be forced out of his job, one has to understand how significant the retaliation was.”
Landry’s office said Derbes resigned and was not fired. His job duties may have been changed as a result of the investigation into his conduct that was being performed at the time.
Landry is suing a reporter who sought documents about sexual harassment allegations
The Office of the Attorney General sued Gallo, a journalist, after she initially asked for documents related to the sexual harassment allegations against Magee. That’s not typical.
Government agencies who don’t want to turn over documents related to a public records request typically wait for a media organization or person to sue the agency in court for the records. It’s unusual to proactively sue the records requester.
A good contrast is LSU’s recent records request battle with USA TODAY newspaper over documents related to sexual misconduct allegations on the university’s campus. USA TODAY has sued LSU at least twice for different types of records. LSU did not, as Landry did, proactively sue the newspaper who had made the requests.
Landry’s office has said it was forced to sue Gallo because Gallo’s employer, The Advocate newspaper, was threatening a lawsuit over the public records, but it’s not clear what would make the fight with Gallo different from other disputes over public records related to sexual misconduct which result in lawsuits.
Landry’s office said they also had to sue Gallo personally, as opposed to the newspaper where she works, because of the way lawsuits work.
“She was the actual requester of the document, not the Advocate,” said Angelique Freel, head of the civil division for Landry’s department. “You can’t just sue anybody. You have to have a right of action and a cause of action.”
“It was sensationalized that we are going after Ms. Gallo. That is not at all what we did,” Landry said.
Landry’s office says Magee’s behavior was inappropriate — but not sexual harassment
Landry’s office continues to say that Magee’s behavior toward employees he supervised — both men and women — was inappropriate. Before Magee resigned, Landry’s office required him to go through extra sensitivity training and docked Magee over $20,000 in pay this year.
“I think it’s important for us all to recognize that we didn’t in any way gloss over the conduct,” Landry said. “The amount of money we extracted from his paycheck was not paltry in any nature. … It’s not like we didn’t discipline him.”
Yet Landry’s office has always maintained that Magee’s actions, while inappropriate, did not rise to level of sexual harassment. Landry’s office said Magee made inappropriate comments about the appearance of people working in the office and sexual jokes.
It’s not clear why sexual jokes and comments about people’s appearances don’t constitute sexual harassment. In a recent state sexual harassment prevention training for state lawmakers, legislators were advised to never comment on a person’s appearance. The training that all state employees receive also explicitly states that jokes about sex and commenting on a person’s appearance can constitute sexual harassment.
In the Louisiana House’s recent training, one legislator — Rep. Barry Ivey — explicitly raised the example of what happened in the attorney general’s office. Ivey, a Republican from Central, said he didn’t understand how what had occurred in Landry’s office couldn’t be considered sexual harassment. Staff said they weren’t familiar enough with the situation to be able to confirm what had happened, but from reading news articles, they thought it sounded like sexual harassment as well.
Landry’s office said that Taylor Porter law firm — the outside entity that was hired to investigate Magee — determined Magee did not necessarily commit sexual harassment. They explained that some of the accusations made about Magee couldn’t be substantiated. In some cases, there was a “he said, he said” dispute, in which Magee and Derbes gave different accounts of what was said during conversations between the two of them.
AG’s office claims victory in court — even after being forced to cover legal costs
Landry and members of his staff repeated several times at Tuesday’s press conference that they thought the attorney general had a good day in court when Judge Tim Kelly ordered the attorney general to turn over documents to Gallo. Landry said that the judge had gone out of his way to say the attorney general had handled the records request properly.
But Kelly told Landry to turn over documents to Gallo that the attorney general had resisted giving her. Kelly also made the Louisiana Department of Justice pay for Gallo’s legal fees resulting from the lawsuit.
Landry didn’t say whether he would hire Magee again to work for him
Landry didn’t rule out hiring Magee to work for him again, despite the controversy and scrutiny Magee has brought to his office.
“Whether I would hire him again or not, I guess it would depend on his ability to rectify whatever he did,” Landry said Tuesday.
Landry likened Magee’s behavior to recent efforts at rehabilitation in the criminal justice system. He said that Magee — like people convicted of crimes — should be given a second chance if he can learn from his mistakes.
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