IBERVILLE PARISH, La. (WAFB) - For the second time this year, the Iberville Parish Office of the Indigent Defender is looking for a new office space after getting the boot from Parish President Mitchell Ourso.
Originally, the office was on the third floor of the courtroom, but citing “health and safety” concerns raised by the judges and district attorney’s office, Ourso removed them.
In a letter sent to Chief Public Defender Jerome D’Aquila on May 14, Ourso said the Iberville Parish Council had a “professional hygienist conduct a public health survey” of the courthouse.
“The Judges and District Attorney have expressed their views regarding the safety and security of the courthouse related to their staff and the public. Therefore, it is in the best interest that the Indigent Defender Office be relocated outside of the courthouse,” the letter stated.
Ourso was not available for an interview, but he told WAFB the move was to make more space for the judges on the third floor because of COVID-19.
Assistant Public Defender Victor Wood said Thursday, Sept. 3 the move was unexpected.
“It was vaguely worded, it referred to some report by a hygienist,” Wood said of the letter sent by Ourso. “I don’t want to speculate as to what that meant, but it was concerning that the language that was included in that letter referring to health and safety.”
WAFB reached out to Judge Alvin Batiste Jr. about if the judges requested such a move; he would not initially comment, citing judicial ethics and the potential for future litigation. Later, he issued the following statement:
“Had I known the exact nature of your telephone call to my office on today I would have gladly advised you that neither I or any other judge of the 18th Judicial District Court ever raised any concerns about the ’health and safety’ at the Iberville Parish Courthouse relative to the Public Defenders Office which was located on the 3rd floor. Likewise, none of the judges requested more space that necessitated evicting the public defenders from their 3rd floor office. This is one of the issues we are seeking to meet with the parish president and council chairman about.”
His office also forwarded a letter Batiste sent to Ourso on Aug. 31 that mentions significant changes made by the parish president.
In the letter from the judge that copied the remaining 18th Judicial District Court judges, Iberville Parish district attorney, and several council members, Batiste said he would like to discuss “significant changes that have been made on the third floor of the Iberville Parish Courthouse that affects the proper functioning of the judiciary.”
The public defenders eventually moved down the street from the courthouse into an empty office building. The space was given to them free of charge by Attorney Patrick Pendley, with the understanding the property would eventually be donated to Iberville Parish.
On Aug. 11, in a letter to Chief Public Defender D’Aquila, Ourso wrote to inform the office it would once again have to move once the property was officially exchanged, citing renovations. Ourso told D’Aquila the parish council “needs additional office space for its own office once the renovations are completed, so you will need to seek alternative office space.”
Ourso gave the public defenders office until the close of business Friday, Sept. 4 to vacate the building.
“We were given short notice to move out of the courthouse. We’re given less than 30 days to move out of our current office,” Wood said. “It’s not just an issue finding another space, it’s having ample opportunity to set up and office to be running.”
Wood said the sudden changes and forced moves by the parish president put an increased burden on the office and will limit the services it’s able to provide to its clients.
“The inconvenience and the disservice is to those individuals who cannot afford an attorney, who may not have transportation, who need legal services to answer some of the most basic questions, don’t know where to go to get that service at,” he said.
According to the parish president’s office, the parish is not required to provide office space for the Office of the Indigent Defender.
Wood said there are no current plans for a new office space, saying with such little notice, there has not been time to find one.
“It’s not just a money issue, it’s a time issue, and it’s an access to an appropriate space,” Wood said.
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