Louisiana abortion ban temporarily lifted by New Orleans judge

A state district judge in New Orleans on Monday temporarily lifted Louisiana’s abortion ban until July 8, when the court will consider a legal challenge to the ban from a Shreveport abortion clinic, the clinic’s administrator and a medical student abortion rights organization based at Tulane University.

“Hoping to start procedures again tomorrow. We have patients here today for consults,” said Kathaleen Pittman, who runs the Shreveport abortion clinic, Hope Medical Group for Women, in an email Monday.

Pittman, as an individual, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Attorney General Jeff Landry and Louisiana Department of Health Secretary Courtney Phillips, who serves under Gov. John Bel Edwards, are defendants in the lawsuit. Landry’s office said will represent the state and defend Louisiana’s abortion ban in court.

“It is unfortunate that there are those who continue to utilize confusion, misinformation, and deceit as scare tactics in the face of the recent SCOTUS Dobbs decision,” Landry wrote on Twitter Monday.

All Louisiana three clinics halted abortions last Friday, within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning its 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion that entitled people to abortion access in all states. Louisiana has so-called “trigger laws” that were designed to automatically prohibit almost all abortion in the state based on that court decision.

Yet the Shreveport abortion clinic and other plaintiffs argue that Louisiana’s multiple, conflicting abortion bans are “vague” and do not make clear whether an abortion ban has taken effect, who enforces the ban and what the penalties are for performing illegal abortions.

Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Robin Giarrusso has only granted a temporary restraining order on the ban, meaning the court could put it back in place as early as July 8, when the first hearing on the case will be held.

The Shreveport clinic is checking with patients who were scheduled to have abortions this week to see if they are keeping their appointments, Pittman said. It will then try to “fill in” with those whose abortion appointments were canceled on Friday and Saturday, when the abortion ban was thought to be in place.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jarvis DeBerry for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

Former Louisiana House speaker part of $9 million swampland deal at taxpayer expense

The state of Louisiana has set aside $9 million to buy 2,000 acres of swampland in St. James and Lafourche parishes that is partly owned by Charles DeWitt, a former House speaker and Public Service Commissioner.
State government is making the purchase for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which intends to use the property to study carbon sequestration. Some of the property could also be leased to private industry.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has embraced carbon sequestration, but environmental advocates said they will object to any carbon storage taking place on this site, made up of vulnerable wetlands.

The deal for the swamp purchase came together quietly. Senators inserted the $9 million allocation into the state budget, along with dozens of other items, just days before lawmakers gave it final approval in May.

Lawmakers didn’t debate the land acquisition publicly, even though it involves an unusual arrangement in which the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries will buy the site on behalf of UL Lafayette. As of last week, the state had no written agreement in place for the purchase yet.

“We have never been asked to purchase property on behalf of someone else,” said Cole Garrett, general counsel for the agency. “It is a unique situation.”

DeWitt told the Illuminator he has not been involved in negotiations with the state over the land sale. He owns the property with five other people, some of whom are political donors, through a series of limited liability companies. One of his business partners, Jeff Richardson, has been handling most of the discussions with the state.

“I haven’t talked to anyone or done anything,” DeWitt said.

Legislators insist land purchase wasn’t a political favor

Lawmakers in charge of the budget process said they didn’t know that DeWitt was among the owners of the land until after they had approved the purchase. The property seller is listed in the budget legislation as Bayou Chevreuil Land Company, LLC, to which DeWitt belongs, but the individual owners aren’t identified by name.

“I don’t know nothing about that. I don’t know nothing about that purchase,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bodi White, R-Central, said in response to questions about DeWitt’s role in the land deal. White oversaw drafting of the budget amendment that allocated $9 million to DeWitt’s company.

DeWitt, a Democrat from Alexandria, served in the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1980 until 2008. He was House speaker from 2000 to 2004, overlapping with Gov. Mike Foster’s second term in office.

Though he left the Legislature 14 years ago, DeWitt remains politically active. Through personal donations and one of his businesses, he contributed $11,000 to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ gubernatorial campaigns. He also gave $20,000 to the Democratic Party of Louisiana in the years leading up to Edwards’ first election in 2015 and has donated a total $20,050 to legislators currently in office, according to campaign finance records.

In 2016, Edwards appointed DeWitt to the Louisiana Public Service Commission in District 4, after incumbent Clyde Holloway suddenly died. DeWitt only held the job for a few months until newly elected Republican Mike Francis took office.

Nevertheless, DeWitt said in an interview he doesn’t have strong personal connections to legislators or the governor. Only a handful of lawmakers who served with him are still in office.

“No one in the Legislature knows who I am anymore,” he said.

While several lawmakers in leadership said they were in the dark about DeWitt’s land ownership, at least one legislator knew he was involved.

Sen. Jay Luneau said he pushed for the $9 million land acquisition. Like DeWitt, Luneau is a Democrat from Alexandria.

“I did know Charlie DeWitt was one of the owners, but he is one of several owners,” Luneau said.

Some landowners are political donors

DeWitt said he owns somewhere between 10% and 20% of the land that will be purchased by the state.

At least four of the five other landowners also have businesses in central Louisiana. Richardson, Daniel Moran, and William Barron are partners in a few companies and share an office address in Alexandria. A. Dean Tyler has businesses based in Pineville.

The final owner, Pamela Gros, has run businesses out of Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes.

Land records show James Kelly Nix, a political aide to former Gov. Edwin Edwards and the state’s elected education superintendent from 1976 to 1984, was also part of the ownership group before he died in 2020. Gros is Nix’s widow and is part of the land group through J. Kelly Nix and Associates Corp., which she owned with her late husband.

Barron, Moran and Tyler could not be reached at phone numbers or email addresses affiliated with their businesses. Gros could not be reached for comment at numbers listed for her.

Richardson and Barron are political donors. Richardson’s companies have given Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser $25,000 since 2011 and donated $2,500 to a political action committee supporting Edwards in 2021. Barron provided office space worth $15,000 to the Louisiana Democratic Party in 2019, when the governor was running for his second term, and gave the governor $2,500 in 2018.

Dewitt is actually a latecomer to the land ownership group. He didn’t join the Bayou Chevreuil Land Company until 2020, years after the other owners became involved. Moran and Nix purchased the original property in 2003. The other men joined the operation in 2011, according to business records with the Secretary of State’s office.

Richardson said the group has been looking to sell the property because it isn’t expected to reach its peak value for another decade, and he doesn’t want to spend that time nurturing its potential.

“I’m 65 years old and it’s a 10-year project. I don’t want to wait that long,” Richardson said in an interview. “The land will have recurring value, but it is going to take 10 years to fulfill its promise.”

LSU also offered the swampland

Richardson approached the LSU Foundation and UL Lafayette about acquiring the swamp property, he said. LSU has been conducting research on the site for decades. The school’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences started studying trees in Bayou Chevreuil in 1973.

‘‘We’ve been able to describe the long-term patterns of decline in the swamp,” LSU professor John Day said. “It’s one of the best-studied forested areas in the country.”

Still, the LSU Foundation declined an offer – the same one UL Lafayette eventually accepted – to have the land purchased outright for the school through the state budget bill.

“There was some benefit on research, but generally it was not a strategically important piece of land for the university so we elected to pass,” LSU Foundation president and CEO Robert Stuart said.

“They bought a piece of land which you didn’t need to buy to study,” Day said. “Nobody has ever kept us out of that land.”

UL Lafayette has no firm plans for the site yet, but has mentioned wanting to use it as a “living lab” to study carbon removal tech.

“A significant amount of federal funding is becoming available for research projects on carbon sequestration,” said Ramesh Kolluru, vice president for research, innovation and economic development at the university.

Need to get in touch?

Have a news tip?

Kolluru mentioned wanting to work on carbon capture, direct air capture and the development of plants that can be engineered to draw more carbon out of the atmosphere.

Carbon capture involves trapping carbon dioxide as it is released into the air and sometimes transferring it in compressed form through pipelines to a storage area deep underground. Direct air capture requires sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, even if it was emitted years ago, and storing it underground.

UL Lafayette said it will also consider leasing the land to industrial users who might want to use it for carbon removal. Companies may also be interested in using the property as an environmental mitigation bank, where a business purchases land to restore in order to offset damage they might be causing to the environment in another location.

“We are still early in the process. We haven’t fully implemented any of these ideas or come close to implementing them,” Kolluru said.

Carbon capture controversial

Louisiana is already planning to put carbon dioxide liquid under Lake Maurepas, a nearby swampy area similar to Bayou Chevreuil. Air Products, a Pennsylvania company that specializes in carbon capture, is expected to open in Ascension Parish in 2026 and use state land around Maurepas for storage.

Still, carbon capture is controversial. Just last week, the New Orleans City Council voted to block carbon sequestration facilities and pipelines from the city.

Environmental groups said the pipelines and wells required to make carbon capture and direct air capture function would harm the wetlands at Bayou Chevreuil. They argue vegetation in the swamp already naturally removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it would be put in harm’s way through those types of projects.

“This property is one of the worst places to do that kind of injection well,” said Scott Eustis, community science director with Healthy Gulf, which advocates for renewable energy. “It’s hurting the thing that is actually removing the carbon from the atmosphere.”

Day at LSU also questioned whether activity on the property would be as lucrative as Richardson and Kolluru had implied.

“I think it is a great place to do scientific research, but making any significant amount of money is not going to happen. That’s just my opinion,” Day said. “If the industry thought they could make a lot of money doing those things, that is what they would be doing.”

The landowners have already tried to market this property as a mitigation bank for the private sector. It’s listed as a “turnkey mitigation option” on the website of Ecosystem Renewal, a company owned by Moran, one of the landowners. It’s not clear how long the swamp area has been on the mitigation bank market. Moran didn’t respond to phone calls and emails sent to a phone number and email address on the Ecosystem Renewal website.

Swampland owner to profit from the sale

Moran, as one of the original owners of the land, stands to make a significant amount of money off of the Bayou Chevreuil sale. If the state ends up purchasing 2,000 acres for $9 million, the deal will be worth around $4,200 per acre. Moran and Nix bought a larger swath of land – around 7,800 acres – that encompasses the site back in 2003 for just $216 per acre, according to land records.

This won’t be the first time the state will pay millions of dollars for the swampy Bayou Chevreuil land. St. James Parish has used $12 million of state construction project money since 2007 to purchase parcels from the Bayou Chevreuil Land Company, according to parish land records. In the most recent purchases – the ones that have taken place since 2013 – the parish has paid about $4,200 per acre for their property, the same rate which the state is expecting to pay.

The land sale will have to go through a state-approved appraisal process first. By law, Louisiana is not allowed to purchase any property at a price that is over its appraised value.

“They are going to pay fair market value,” Matthew Block, general counsel for the governor, said regarding the Bayou Chevreuil purchase.


Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jarvis DeBerry for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

Out-of-state law firm with GOP ties has charged Louisiana legislature $78,000 for 'redistricting advice' -- so far

An out-of-state law firm has charged the Louisiana Legislature $78,081 for providing “redistricting advice,” according to an invoice released Thursday after a public records request. It’s unclear when the law firm performed the work and what type of services it provided.

The Legislature released an invoice that only provides the lump sum of money the law firm is charging the state for assistance on new political maps. There is no itemized list of expenses on the invoice made public, such as individual attorneys’ billable hours or a breakdown of what portion of the bill might have been spent on the lawyers’ travel.

The publicly released invoice also doesn’t detail any range of months or specific dates during which the law firm performed its work. The Legislature received the bill March 14 and it must be paid by April 14. Money Louisiana makes from taxpayers and state fees will be used to cover the cost.

“This doesn’t make much sense to me,” Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, said upon hearing a description of the BakerHostetler invoice legislative staff has released. “I would hope anything like this that we would do in the Senate would have an itemized list attached to it.”

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, hired the law firm on behalf of the Legislature in December to help the state’s new political maps withstand lawsuits from civil rights organizations. The leadership has been secretive about the firm’s work.

Most of the state’s 103 legislators weren’t aware that a law firm had been hired until weeks after its contract went into effect. Only four Republican lawmakers – those working on maps preferred by Cortez and Schexnayder – had access to the attorneys during the redistricting process.

Baker Hostetler 2022-03-14 - Invoice redacted

The Republican-controlled Legislature approved maps that don’t increase the number of majority-Black districts in Louisiana at either the congressional or state level, even though the percentage of Louisiana residents who identify as a minority is growing.

Civil rights groups have filed multiple lawsuits over Louisiana’s congressional and legislative maps on the basis that they violate the federal Voting Rights Act by intentionally weakening Black voter influence.

BakerHostetler is expected to defend the Legislature in those lawsuits. The firm has represented GOP interests in redistricting and election litigation across the country.

One of BakerHostetler’s lawyers assigned to Louisiana’s case is Mark Braden, former general counsel for the Republican National Committee for a decade and a board member of the National Republican Lawyers Association.

The law firm’s December contract with the Legislature was specific about the type of expenses that could be expected, even if the released invoice included little detail about the actual charges.

BakerHostetler planned to bill the Legislature at least $10,000 per month for three months, and the fee would escalate to $60,000 per month once the state was sued over the maps, which happened for the first time in February. The six BakerHostetler attorneys working on Louisiana’s redistricting case would charge rates ranging from $355 to $915 per hour, according to the law firm’s contract.

The firm was also expected to bill above and beyond their $10,000 or $60,000 monthly fee for ancillary expenses. These include court filing fees, travel, expert witnesses and online services such as LexisNexis and Westlaw.

It’s unclear what attorney rates and ancillary expenses have been included in the $78,000 billed by the law firm because the released invoice does not include an itemized list of charges.

Cortez said last month that the law firm had hired at least one outside expert to look at racially polarized voting in Louisiana, though it is not clear how much that expert cost the state. This expense also wasn’t broken out on BakerHostetler’s invoice released publicly. Legislative leaders have also refused to share the name of the person or people who worked on the analysis publicly, so it’s not clear what type of rates might have been on the table.

Racially polarized voting analyses help determine to what extent voters of different races prefer different candidates. It is instrumental in court cases over federal Voting Rights Act compliance, like those that have been filed in Louisiana.

Democratic legislators said the public should have more details about what specific expenses from the law firm are being covered with public funds.

“Most invoices aren’t shared with the Senate members as a matter of course,” Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said in a text message Thursday. “However, in this situation involving this controversial legislation and the circumstances surrounding their hiring process, it’s probably in the best interest of all involved for there to be transparency and details provided to members.”

BakerHostetler may also be renegotiating its contract with the Legislature. The law firm’s initial agreement with Schexnayder and Cortez was signed in December and only lasts three months. It allowed the law firm and lawmakers to revisit the terms of the arrangement by the end of March.

Cortez and Schexnayder could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Louisiana Illuminator has chosen to redact information regarding an individual’s personal contact information, the law firm’s tax ID number and its wire payment login that were included in an invoice obtained through a public records request.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jarvis DeBerry for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

Louisiana House Speaker calls governor's silence on Ronald Greene's death 'greatly disturbing'

Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, described a recent Associated Press report which revealed that Gov. John Bel Edwards knew about the violent, fatal arrest of a Black man by Louisiana State Police long before the details of the arrest went public “greatly disturbing.”

Schexnayder said in a written statement that he had talked to Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and Attorney General Jeff Landry over the weekend about the report on Edwards, though he didn’t say what the three Republicans might do in response.

Instead, he alluded to a possible legislative investigation or impeachment, saying the Legislature was fully prepared to use its authority to serve as “check and balance to other branches.”

“What happened to Ronald Greene is inexcusable and should never happen to anyone. His family and the citizens of this state deserve to know the truth,” Schexnayder said.

“It’s time to find out who knew what – and when – and hold them accountable,” he said.

The Republican Party of Louisiana has also called on Edwards, a Democrat, to be investigated for his role in a potential coverup of Greene’s death. The Louisiana Senate has already set up a task force to look into the Greene case, though it hasn’t been focused on the governor.

In 2019, Greene died in state police custody after being involved in a high-speed chase outside Monroe. State police insisted for over a year that Greene died as a result of a car wreck that happened at the end of the chase, even though a local coroner cast doubt on that cause of death.

Over a year later, in 2021, the Associated Press published body camera footage showing troopers beating Greene and jolting him with stun guns after his car crash and before he died, contradicting the state police account. Greene’s family is suing the state for a wrongful death in his case.

Edwards didn’t publicly contradict or challenge the state police account of Greene’s death by car crash for over a year, though the Associated Press report last week shows that former state police superintendent Col. Kevin Reeves gave Edwards a different story about Greene’s arrest shortly after it happened.

Hours after Greene’s death, Reeves texted Edwards to say there had been a “violent, lengthy struggle” when troopers tried to arrest Greene after a high-speed chase. “The suspect remained combative but became unresponsive shortly after EMS arrived,” Reeves texted Edwards the day after Greene’s death, according to the Associated Press.

Reeves retired suddenly in 2020, when scrutiny of the Greene case increased and after his son, who’s also a state trooper, was found at fault for an on-duty auto accident that killed two people. The governor has repeatedly praised Reeves for his service as head of the state agency.

Edwards hasn’t publicly addressed Friday’s Associated Press report yet. Greene’s death is the subject of a federal civil rights investigation, but the governor’s office told the Associated Press that Edwards and members of his staff are not under investigation.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jarvis DeBerry for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

IN OTHER NEWS: Trump ‘doesn’t care anymore’ and is in ‘burn it all down mode’: Maggie Haberman

Trump ‘doesn’t care anymore’ and is in ‘burn it all down mode’: Maggie Haberman www.youtube.com

In Louisiana, rape survivors are denied access to their own medical records

Ten years ago, Yvonne Williams agreed to have her body photographed, poked and prodded as part of a forensic medical exam — or rape kit exam — at the Interim LSU hospital in New Orleans.

Williams hoped the exam would lead to the arrest of the man she was confident assaulted her, but it didn’t make the process less painful. She described it as “shameful and humiliating,” in an interview this month.

During the exam, a nurse found tears in Williams’ sex organs. Her uterus had been damaged and an internal wound was bleeding so much that it required cauterization, Williams recalled. When it was over, she left the hospital with a “bag full of STD medication.”

It didn’t occur to Williams to ask for her exam records at the time. Two days later, she got on a plane headed back to her home in California. She had only been in Louisiana on business for a few days.

Louisiana Illuminator typically doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault, but Williams agreed to publicly disclose her name.

The New Orleans police never arrested the person Williams suspects attacked her, or anyone else in connection with her case. But when she asked for a copy of her medical records in 2018, University Medical Center — which took over Interim LSU hospital — denied the request on the basis that law enforcement still needed them.

Williams found the explanation baffling, especially since her case was seven years old and, much to her frustration, hadn’t gone anywhere. The police had not been in contact with her about it in years.

“Any other hospital that I have ever been at, you fill out a form and they give you your medical records,” Williams said. “If you’re going to go through this process, then by God, you should be able to get your freaking records.”

It took three more years and two attorneys before Williams saw her own forensic medical report. She received a copy only after the police opened and closed her case again. Williams’ second lawyer got the report in June after making a public records request to the City of New Orleans.

In Louisiana, survivors of sexual assault are repeatedly denied copies of their forensic medical exams. There’s no standard approach for releasing those documents to patients. Medical providers, under pressure from law enforcement, are reluctant to give them out.

“In some cases, where [survivors] have been given records, DAs and law enforcement are mad because the records were handed over,” Greg Waddell, vice president of the Louisiana Hospital Association, said last month.

State officials want to improve victims’ access to those medical records and make the process for releasing them more uniform. The Louisiana Sexual Assault Oversight Commission has recommended an update to the statewide protocol on forensic medical exams for more transparency, but some advocates for sexual assault survivors don’t think the commission’s proposal goes far enough.

Advocates think more aggressive action should be taken, like a new state law, that would ensure survivors get to see their exam documents. Other crime victims, such as gunshot survivors, are able to access their medical reports without question. Sexual assault victims should be given the same opportunity, they said.

“They’ve been robbed of their control and their autonomy, and when they try to scratch and claw for information to achieve some measure of justice, they are denied that,” said Sean Cassidy, Williams’ lawyer and an attorney with Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault.

“It is re-traumatizing,” he said.

Is it evidence or medical treatment?

Louisiana hospitals and other medical providers have no consistent policy for handling victims’ requests for their own forensic medical exams, according to a survey by the state sexual assault oversight commission coordinated by Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office.

Where a person goes for treatment after sexual violence could determine whether they can ever get access to their own medical file.

CHRISTUS St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Alexandria never allows people access to their forensic medical records, wrote Kim Thomas, the sexual assault nurse examiner coordinator for the hospital, in response to the commission’s survey.

Sexual assault survivors in Caddo and Bossier parishes can only get their records from law enforcement directly. Otherwise, they aren’t released, said Olivia Jones, a sexual assault nurse examiner who works for the Forensic Nurse Examiners of Louisiana Inc., a nonprofit which serves Northwest Louisiana.

University Medical Center — which provides sexual assault forensic medical exams for victims in New Orleans and several surrounding parishes — will only release records if a survivor hires an attorney and the hospital is served a subpoena for evidence, wrote Heidi Martin, the sexual assault nurse examiner for the hospital, in response to the survey.

The New Orleans Family Justice Center is an outlier because it does give survivors a copy of their forensic medical exam if requested, according to the survey, but the staff still asks patients to explain how the records will be used.

“If they are just asking for [their medical records] without any concrete plans for them, I will discourage this,” wrote Andrew Mahoney, the coordinator for the center’s sexual assault exams, in response to the commission’s survey. “However, if they insist, I will give them.”

“One patient insisted on having them, and she ended up inadvertently giving them to her assailant’s attorney,” Mahoney wrote.

Louisiana’s sexual assault oversight commission is an 18-member state board that includes advocates for sexual assault survivors, medical professionals, one state lawmaker and prosecutors. It reviews state policy around forensic medical exams, and makes recommendations to the Louisiana Legislature about law changes.

The commission recommended the release of forensic medical exam reports to adult survivors who don’t report their attacks to law enforcement in a letter to state lawmakers this month. The board said this could be done by adjusting the statewide forensic medical exam protocol. It would not require a new state law.

But the commission also recommended forensic medical records attached to ongoing criminal cases be handled differently. It suggested records should be kept from victims when there are “substantial and overriding evidentiary reasons for withholding the reports as determined by District Attorneys.”

Advocates said giving this deference to the district attorneys could mean that little will change about survivors’ poor access to their medical reports. Without a new law, there would also be little recourse for a survivor who is denied their records.

Prosecutors could still try to block the sharing of medical reports with patients who don’t report to law enforcement on the condition that the patients might report at some point in the future. In the case of sex crimes, victims have decades to go to law enforcement with their allegations. The statute of limitations on prosecution doesn’t run out for years.

Prosecutors don’t consider the forensic medical exams comparable to other hospital reports, said Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. Nurses address injuries and prescribe medication to sexual assault victims as part of the process, but prosecutors perceive the exam’s main purpose to collect evidence, not medical treatment.

“It is a forensic examination, which means it is being done in preparation for court,” Lampert said.

District attorneys use medical reports to corroborate the victim’s testimony of an assault at trial. If a victim has seen their records before providing testimony in court, a judge might suspect that the victim crafted their story to match the information in the records, Lampert said. That could weaken a prosecutor’s case against a sexual predator, he said.

“We want to make sure everybody’s testimony is their own,” Lampert said. “We don’t want to give defense attorneys space to pick things apart.”

Even law enforcement agencies have to jump through hoops to get forensic medical reports, according to the New Orleans Police Department.

“Sexual Assault Medical Reports created by hospitals are deemed evidence and are not available for release without a judge-approved search warrant, this includes any inquiries from law enforcement,” said Gary Scheets, New Orleans police spokesman, in a written statement.

Medical professionals on the sexual assault oversight commission also suggested that victims might be too fragile to see their own records.

Randall Brown, a doctor at Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, said victims could react badly to information in a report about whether they appeared drugged or intoxicated. He worried that patients might start to blame themselves for their own attack if they saw that they were described as being inebriated in the exam notes.

Martin, the sexual assault exam coordinator at University Medical Center, said she would be more comfortable handing over exam records to survivors if a medical professional was present to explain the content of the report. Then, the record would be less likely to upset the patient.

But other commission members worried that providing medical staff assistance would make the release of the records cost prohibitive. It would take more resources for hospitals and clinics to make a nurse available every time a survivor wanted to see their record, they said.

A few members of the commission also departed from the consensus of the board about seeking permission from law enforcement before the release of the records.

One pushed back on the notion that releasing medical records could weaken criminal prosecutions. Victims have access to such records in other states, said Morgan Lamandre, an attorney with the Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response organization, which provides services for sexual assault survivors.

State Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, questioned whether victims wouldn’t be able to stomach information contained in the records. They have already survived the attacks and exams. It seems odd that reviewing a medical report would be deemed too traumatizing, she said.

“Over and over, I hear that these victims can’t handle what they’ve already lived through,” Mizell said. “That just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”

In Williams’ case, she began to seek a copy of her forensic medical exam because she thought it would help her start a “healing journey.” She found it traumatizing to look at her medical report — when she finally saw it earlier this year — but she also found it traumatizing to have the medical report kept from her.

“If I would have had [the medical report] earlier, I would have known the truth,” Williams said. “Instead, I was in the dark the entire 10 years.”

Did that really happen to me?

On Oct. 26, 2011, Williams woke up in a Hotel Monteleone room that wasn’t her own. She said she had a black eye, blood on her face and a broken nose. Her lower abdomen and sex organs hurt so much that she had trouble sitting down without pain.

“I can’t even walk,” Williams recalled in an interview this week. “I felt like I had just given birth.”

The hotel room she was in belonged to a man who was attending the same military conference she was in New Orleans, she said. As she put together where she was, she felt certain he was responsible for her injuries.

Williams couldn’t recall much of the night before, but one of her last memories was of the same man holding her drink for her while she went to the bathroom in a bar. Later, when she finished the drink, the room started to warp around her. Then, she blacked out.

Willams had only just met the man. He was one of a small group of conference goers that convinced her to go out to dinner with them. They expressed an interest in doing business with her gluten-free food company. After the dinner, the group went to a bar together, she said.

The morning after that trip to the bar, Williams painfully hobbled back to her hotel room, she said. She had no recollection of how she had gotten back to the Monteleone, let alone into the man’s room, the previous night. In her own room the morning after, she called another colleague attending the conference for help. When he came by and saw her beaten face, the colleague insisted on calling 911, she said.

“We don’t want to give defense attorneys space to pick things apart.”

– Loren Lampert, Louisiana District Attorneys Association

Williams, then in her mid-40s, eventually ended up at Interim LSU where a nurse trained to treat victims of sexual assault conducted her exam. The process included not just the medical treatment for Williams’ injuries, but drug tests and the collection of fluids and other material that might help build a successful case for a sex crime.

Years later, Williams decided to ask for those medical records at the suggestion of her therapist. News reports of the sexual assault allegations against morning show host Matt Lauer — which were breaking in 2018 — had brought the attack in New Orleans to the forefront of her mind again.

Williams’ lawyer, Cassidy, said some of his clients seek out their medical records in order to confirm what happened to them. As an attorney for the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, he’s consulted with hundreds of survivors. Those who go through a forensic medical exam can have a hard time recalling what the nurse told them during the process, which is why they sometimes want a copy of their medical records after the fact.

“They could have been hit in the head, drugged — or just the sexual trauma will mess with your memory,” Cassidy said.

In Williams’ case, she was confident that she recalled her injuries accurately, but she wanted a copy of her medical records to challenge law enforcement’s handling of her case. Williams has lodged complaints with federal and local authorities about the New Orleans police’s investigation into her attack, which she describes as feckless.

“If you have your medical records, you can hold them accountable,” she said.

What if you don’t report to the police?

Forensic medical records have other practical uses for victims who aren’t interested in a criminal case.

Even if they don’t report their assault to law enforcement, victims can use the documents to obtain civil restraining orders against the people who attack them. Medical reports can also strengthen a victim’s Title IX sexual misconduct complaint at a college or university, Lamandre said.

University Medical Center — which performs more forensic medical exams on sexual assault survivors than most other facilities in the state — has released records just three times to survivors in the last three years, said Brandy Sheely, an attorney for the hospital.

The hospital released them to two victims who were seeking “stay away orders,” and a third bringing a Title IX complaint, Sheely told the sexual assault oversight commission this month. The hospital required all the survivors to sign a waiver stating that the hospital was no longer responsible for the reports.

But even when a hospital is willing to turn over the written forensic medical report, survivors may be unable to get the photos taken of their bodies during the exam. University Medical Center would only release exam photos if the hospital was required to do so by a court order, Sheely said at the commission meeting earlier this month.

Those photos are often graphic, taken of naked bodies and genitals, and if victims were able to receive those images, they could fall into the wrong hands, she said. In a hypothetical situation posed to the commission this month, Sheely worried someone might leave those photos in their car and then the car would get stolen and the photos would be shared with people who weren’t meant to see them.

In 2011, Williams recalls photos being taken of her during her own forensic medical exam. She said she signed a waiver at the hospital to have pictures taken of her, but she’s never seen them. The photos weren’t attached to the copy of the medical report released to her.

Victims may not get their medical records, but others do

Sexual assault survivors face barriers getting copies of their forensic medical exams, though that doesn’t mean the hospital doesn’t share those same documents with others.

As part of criminal proceedings, detectives and prosecutors may see the medical reports. Defense attorneys — representing the people accused of the assaults — may also look at copies.

The medical providers also routinely share exam records with Louisiana’s Crime Victims Reparations Board, said Bob Wertz, a staff member to the reparations board. Both the 11-member board and its employees have access to individual medical reports, he said.

Hospitals and medical providers send over the forensic medical records when they are seeking reimbursement from the state for performing the exams. In Louisiana, medical providers are prohibited from charging a sexual assault victim for their exam. Instead, they are supposed to seek funding from the state’s crime victims reparations fund to cover those expenses.

If a hospital feels comfortable enough letting strangers on a state board review those medical documents, victims should also be able to look at them, Lamandre said.

“I don’t see how we get to decide who gets to see their own records,” she said.

Williams wants to push for a change to Louisiana law that would guarantee people like her could access their own medical report after a sexual assault exam.

She believes that victims should be able to leave the hospital with a copy of those records, as well as their police report. She also wants every sexual assault survivor to receive information about how criminal and civil prosecution for sex crimes works and what the statute of limitations on each is. She said if she had been given access to that type of information immediately, her case may have had a different outcome.

“Right now, the survivor is not empowered at all — not even to take control of her or his own healing process,” she said.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jarvis DeBerry for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

7 things to know about a whistleblower's lawsuit against Louisiana attorney general Jeff Landry

A former, high-ranking state prosecutor filed a lawsuit last week against his former boss, Attorney General Jeff Landry, over Landry's alleged retaliation against the prosecutor for reporting sexual misconduct.

Matthew Derbes resigned from the Louisiana Department of Justice, which Landry leads, in April and shortly revealed himself to be a whistleblower who had complained about the head of the department's criminal division, Pat Magee, mistreating women at their office.

Landry and Magee are close friends — and Landry repeatedly denied that Magee had violated sexual misconduct policies. The attorney general continued the denials even as he cut Magee's pay and suspended him following an investigation into Magee's conduct.

Magee eventually left his job after the allegations against him went public. He was accused of making comments about the appearance of women working for him. He also discussed whether he would have sex with certain women who worked in the department, among other things.

Derbes said Landry forced him to quit his job as a result of Derbes complaining about Magee's alleged inappropriate behavior and broader misconduct at the office. Derbes now works in the Orleans District Attorney's office.

Landry could not be reached for comment about Derbes' lawsuit. The attorney general's office did not respond to emails and text messages Thursday evening.

Here's some of the specific allegations included in the lawsuit:

Derbes says Landry held back on pursuing an alleged child molester for political reasons

Derbes said his complaints about Magee weren't the only thing that made Landry angry at him.

The prosecutor alleges in his lawsuit that Landry gave a suspected child molester, Gregory Campo Jr. of Lafayette, preferential treatment because of a personal connection Landry had with Campo's family. Derbes said that while he was still working for the Department of Justice, he raised questions about the alleged preferential treatment.

“When [Derbes] asked about the disparate treatment of the criminal defendant to his superiors, he was advised the criminal defendant's family had a personal connection to Mr. Landry and had a relationship with Mr. Landry such that Mr. Landry did not want the criminal defendant prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," the lawsuit states.

Derbes says Landry used money meant to help fight insurance fraud for other purposes

The lawsuit doesn't go into too much detail about this allegation, but it says repeatedly that Derbes learned that money which was supposed to go specifically toward fighting insurance fraud was being used for some other purpose in the Department of Justice under Landry. Derbes raised questions about the practice with his superiors, according to the lawsuit.

Derbes says Landry deliberately hid documents about sexual misconduct from the media

The prosecutor alleges the Department of Justice deliberately misclassified employees' complaints about sexual harassment from Magee such that the department could avoid turning them over in response to a public records request from a journalist. At least one reporter had requested to look at those records in December 2020.

Derbes says Landry limited scope of investigation into Magee's alleged misconduct

The outside law firm investigating Magee's alleged sexual misconduct while working for Landry was restricted, according to the lawsuit. The attorney general limited the investigation “in order to favorably skew any conclusion in favor of Magee," the lawsuit states.

Derbes says Landry accused the prosecutor of manufacturing documents for the media

Landry and Magee accused Derbes of purposefully creating a paper trail regarding the sexual harassment complaints about Magee such that a journalist would be able to find out about the allegations, according to the lawsuit.

Derbes also alleges that Landry and others at the Department of Justice manufactured documents of complaints allegedly lodged against Derbes in order to make Derbes look like a bad employee.

The prosecutor also says Landry's office purposefully released identifying information to the media about Derbes, that would cause a journalist to be able to identify him as the whistleblower on the allegations against Magee.

Derbes says Landry took away Derbes' job responsibilities

After Derbes lodged a formal complaint about conduct in the attorney general's office with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Louisiana Commission on Human Rights, Landry removed Derbes from his job duties in retaliation, according to the lawsuit. Derbes was forced to quit his job after being put in this position, the lawsuit states.

Derbes says Landry tried to interfere with Derbes' ability to get a new job

The lawsuit doesn't go into detail about this allegation but says that Landry interfered with Derbes' “replacement employment" and attempted to get Derbes fired from a job he took after leaving the state justice department. It's not clear whether the job referenced is Derbes' new position with Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jarvis DeBerry for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

Louisiana starts recovery from Hurricane Ida with limited power, phone service

Louisiana citizens started to dig themselves out of the wreckage left by Hurricane Ida Monday while dealing with widespread power failures, sewerage system outages and downed mobile phone service across much of the southeastern region of the state.

Some of the parishes most affected by the powerful storm — including New Orleans — didn't have functioning 911 services Monday morning. Louisiana government officials and first responders were even having difficulty communicating with each other. Gov. John Bel Edwards said 25,000 linemen were already in the state working to restore electricity with thousands more on the way, but 1.1 million homes and businesses remained without power.

Packing sustained winds of 150 miles per hour for a “a long period of time'' when it came ashore, Ida was one of the strongest storms to ever hit the United States when it made landfall Sunday. With reports of gusts as strong as 170 to 180 miles per hour, Edwards said it was one of the strongest hurricanes to hit Louisiana since before the Civil War.

“This wreaks havoc on infrastructure and that includes the electric grid,'' the governor said at a Monday afternoon press conference. “There are eight transmission lines that feed the New Orleans area. All of them failed.''

Most state government workers get cell phone service through the AT&T network, which wasn't functioning in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and some other areas affected by the hurricane Monday.

By the middle of the day Monday, the state had reported two deaths as a result of Hurricane Ida, though officials expect that number to increase significantly as recovery efforts continued throughout the day.

“Saving lives is the No. 1 priority,'' Edwards said.

How to get help from FEMA

Residents affected by Hurricane Ida can now apply for individual and household assistance from FEMA, Edwards said.

President Joe Biden approved Edwards' request for a major disaster declaration Sunday night. Nearly 18,000 people already have signed up.

Residents are encouraged to apply for FEMA aid if they live in one of the impacted parishes: Ascension, Assumption, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberia, Iberville, Jefferson, Lafourche, Livingston, Orleans, Plaquemines, Pointe Coupee, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Helena, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Martin, St. Mary, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Terrebonne, Washington, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana.

To apply, visit disasterassistance.gov or call the FEMA Helpline at 1.800.621.3362 and TTY 1.800.462.7585.

One bright spot was provided by the relatively new hurricane protection system that encompasses Orleans and parts of Jefferson, St. Charles, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. The floodgates and levees held up and prevented massive flooding. Hurricane Ida was the first real test of this network, which was constructed for billions of dollars following Hurricane Katrina.

“Our levee systems performed extremely well,'' Edwards said. A preliminary damage assessment found that no levees breached or failed but a few smaller levees overtopped resulting in some flooding of homes, he said.

But parts of the state immediately outside of the flood protection area did not fare well. Several communities along the Louisiana coast were devastated with roofs blown off homes and historic buildings. Port Fourchon — which is a hub for the oil and gas industry — has suffered considerable damage, officials said. Jefferson Parish officials lost contact with the few people who stayed on Grand Isle, a popular fishing and vacation spot that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico, for several hours.

Coastal towns also weren't the only ones significantly impacted. Communities directly to the north of the hurricane protection system that surround New Orleans were inundated with flooding. Residents from St. John Parish sent pleas out over social media early on Monday morning — while it was still dark — asking for rescue from their homes.

Louisiana's 5,000 National Guard troops will soon be joined by additional troops from 13 other states in the coming days, the governor said. The Louisiana guard was responsible for rescuing 191 citizens and 27 pets across Jefferson, Orleans and St. John the Baptist parishes and conducted helicopter hoist-and-lift operations in LaPlace and Jean Lafitte, Edwards said.

Meanwhile buses evacuated 400 people to shelters around the state. About 2,000 people are staying in 36 shelters across the state.

Government officials in areas devastated by the hurricane — including New Orleans — asked residents who relocated before the storm not to return to their homes yet. Power could be out in some of Louisiana's most populous parishes, like Orleans and Jefferson, for weeks.

One ongoing concern is the hospital network in southeast Louisiana. The state's largest health care network, Ochsner Health, has evacuated three of its hospitals. Patients in St. Charles Hospital in Luling, St. Anne in Raceland and Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma had to be transferred to other facilities after parts of the hospitals' roofs blew off and windows shattered.

Terrebonne General Medical System — which is not part of the Ochsner system — has also been evacuated. The facility has had significant roof damage, which has caused rainwater to pour into the hospital.

Edwards has said that evacuating several larger hospitals is not necessarily an option following Ida. Hospitals across the South — including Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi — are full because of the COVID-19 pandemic and can't take in a large influx of hurricane evacuees.

“I would say every facility we have has had some sort of roof issue and we have water intrusion," said Warner Thomas, the chief executive officer of Ochsner Health.

Other Ochsner facilities — including one in Kenner — experienced problems with their generators during and after the hurricane. In large parts of south Louisiana, the hospitals have lost access to running water as well, and are relying on water reserves they stored before the hurricane.

“More fuel is on its way. Water is on its way. These are things we planned for," Warner said.

But there are also concerns about whether hospital staff can live in New Orleans and the surrounding area if the power is out for weeks. Ochsner said it is not able to put employees up in hotels in southeastern Louisiana, because the hotels also don't have access to power and water.

Edwards noted that there were 18 water system outages in the region affecting 312,000 people and 14 boil water advisories impacting 329,000 people.

“It's pretty clear that if you have evacuated now is not the time to return unless and until your parish informs you that it's OK to do so,'' Edwards said. “Businesses aren't open. Stores aren't open. Schools aren't open. And quite frankly we need to put as little demand on our water systems and on our electric grid as possible.''

The governor implored residents to be patient.

“Be a good neighbor. Take care of yourself. Take care of your family. Reach out to the elderly couple next door across the road,'' Edwards said. “Make sure to the extent that you can you're checking on family members who may be elderly or have special needs. There are an awful lot of unknowns right now. There are certainly more questions than answers…

“I know a lot of people out there are tired. Sometimes this can be too much to bear. It's a lot to deal with,'' the governor said. “But I know the people of our state are stronger than the strongest of storms. Our spirit is unbreakable. And we're going to embark on this road to recovery together.''

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jarvis DeBerry for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.