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Sunday, March 24, 2019

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Official files suit against Lafourche Parish president

Official files suit against Lafourche Parish president

Former Lafourche Parish Administrator Reggie Bagala has filed a lawsuit in federal court against Lafourche Parish and Parish President Jimmy Cantrelle.

The federal lawsuit, filed Jan. 31, claims Cantrelle violated Bagala’s First Amendment rights and Louisiana state law. Bagala’s attorneys are Jerri and Maxwell Smitko of Smitko Law in Houma.

A summons was sent to Cantrelle via the Lafourche Parish Government Feb. 7.

“Mr. Bagala’s allegations in his lawsuit are demonstrably false,” Cantrelle’s attorney James Cobb, Jr. said in a written statement Tuesday.

Cantrelle had 21 days, until Feb. 28, to respond to the complaint. As of today, Cantrelle has not responded, but he obtained an indefinite extension due to parish legal issues, Cobb said. As a result, it is still undetermined whether Cobb will represent Cantrelle as parish president or as a private individual because the Parish Council had not yet approved a list of parish attorneys for the year.

Bagala served as the parish administrator from September 2016 until he was fired by Cantrelle in January 2017. Within a week, he was hired by the council as legislative auditor.

Bagala claims in the suit that Cantrelle violated Louisiana open meetings laws by having him call council members about an insurance issue that was coming before the council for a vote. Bagala alleges Cantrelle threatened to discontinue health insurance for parish employees if the council did not approve a new group insurance plan.

Cobb refuted those allegations, calling them “a ridiculous assertion.”

A compromise was proposed, but Bagala said Cantrelle didn’t feel like he was getting enough out of the deal, so Cantrelle attempted to renegotiate.

The suit says Cantrelle asked Bagala to call each council member, offering to keep the same insurance provider if the council agreed to raises for then-Deputy Communications Director Caroline Eschette and Plans and Permits Director Tony Breaux.

According to the suit, Cantrelle referred to the pay increases as “bargaining chips” and violated the law by asking Bagala to make calls to individual council members.

The suit says Bagala asked Cantrelle twice “if he was sure.”

One of those calls was to Councilwoman Luci Sposito, who is quoted in a statement she made to then-Lafourche District Attorney Cam Morvant.

After Bagala told her about the proposed deal, Sposito said, “Reggie, this is really screwed up. I feel like he’s got a gun to my head.”

In early January 2017, Cantrelle called Bagala and said “Reggie, you know I didn’t put a gun to your head to make those (expletive) calls,” after Morvant completed an investigation, the suit says.

Morvant later turned the investigation over to the state Board of Ethics to determine whether any ethical violations were made by Cantrelle. In a recent letter to Cantrelle, the Ethics Board’s Jennifer T. Land says the investigation did not reveal clear and convincing evidence that an ethics violation occurred and closed the file.

The suit says Cantrelle tried to force Bagala to resign on Jan. 25, 2017. In exchange, Cantrelle offered to reinstate him as director of the Office of Community Services with a $10,000 raise, the suit says.

Bagala did not agree to the deal, the suit says.

About a week later, Bagala said, he was asked to meet Cantrelle in the lobby at the parish building but was instead greeted by three police officers who stepped into Bagala’s office, followed by Cantrelle, and presented him with a termination letter.

When Bagala was hired as the legislative auditor, Cantrelle told parish employees not to speak to Bagala and threatened those who did with termination, the suit claims.

“The allegations in Mr. Bagala’s lawsuit, as well as the purely political decisions and unprofessional behavior of the council, are certainly not to be admired by anyone,” Cobb said.

The suit claims Cantrelle also refused to provide Bagala with office space after he was hired as auditor.

Now, Cantrelle is encouraging parish employees and an outside firm to monitor Bagala’s computer activity as legislative auditor, the suit says.

“Mr. Bagala is an employee of Lafourche Parish, working for the council, a parish he is now suing under the most dubious of circumstances,” Cobb said.

The suit calls for compensatory damages for mental and emotional harm, punitive damages and legal fees. It does not list specific amounts for the damages. The case was assigned to Judge Carl Barbier and Magistrate Judge Michael North in the U.S. District Court of New Orleans.

-- Daily Comet Staff Writer Julia Arenstam can be reached at 448-7636 or Follow her on Twitter at @gingerale2