La. parish president still facing lawsuits over Katrina

Published 7:24 pm Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On the eve of Hurricane Katrina, massive pumps that keep water out of this New Orleans suburb went silent when the roughly 100 workers who run them were allowed to flee under a “doomsday” evacuation plan.

With the storm raging, flood water on the east bank of Jefferson Parish had nowhere to go, damaging thousands of homes, shopping malls and businesses between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River in Jefferson Parish.

For parish President Aaron Broussard, a populist Democrat who rose to power over three decades, the evacuation of the workers could be make-or-break politically and legally.

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While other government officials and agencies have persuaded courts they are immune from liability for Katrina damage or deaths, Broussard seems to be the last still dogged in public and in court.

After the storm, parish residents along the lake’s east bank dried out and scraped the muck from their middle class and upscale homes. Then they went to court against Broussard, with a judge recently refusing to dismiss him from lawsuits that hold him personally responsible.

At first, Broussard publicly accepted responsibility for the evacuation decision in August 2005. Over the years, he went about rebuilding a rapport with angry voters with support from residents who suffered less hurricane damage. In October 2007, Broussard managed to narrowly win re-election over a little-known challenger.

About a month after the election, he swore under oath in lawsuit depositions that he didn’t know of the doomsday evacuation plan before Katrina, saying he learned the pump operators had gone only after the fact.

Many constituents wonder where the truth lies.

“He’s changing his story to fit the legal situation,” said Debbie Settoon, a civil engineer and president of the civic group Citizens for a Safer Jefferson.

Why would Broussard defend a plan he didn’t know about? Because it “preserved life,” he said last week. Why shoulder the blame for a decision he swears he didn’t make? That’s the “burden of leadership,” he said.

Both sides of the lawsuits agree on this: For nearly 12 hours after Katrina struck, Jefferson’s network of canals overflowed because pump operators were evacuated. In refusing to dismiss Broussard, state District Judge John Peytavin cited “unanswered” questions posed by storm victims’ lawyers during a November deposition.

“Would you have agreed with that decision?” attorney Darleen Jacobs asked Broussard at that session.

“I don’t know,” he answered.

“Could you, as parish president, have vetoed the decision to remove the pump operators?” Jacobs asked.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Broussard said.

Broussard, 59, downplays comparisons between his public rhetoric and sworn testimony.

“Part of the burden of leadership is accepting the public sentiment with respect,” he said. “Legal accountability is a different standard.”

The parish’s former emergency director, Walter Maestri, who retired about a year after Katrina, told victims’ lawyers this month that he hadn’t discussed evacuation of pump operators with Broussard on Aug. 28, 2005, the eve of the storm. But he contradicted Broussard’s claim of ignorance of the doomsday plan.

Maestri, who drafted the original plan in 1998, revised the document in 2005 to identify a new hurricane shelter for parish employees. Maestri said Broussard sought the change through a deputy, who quoted the parish president as saying he “wanted no one to die on his watch.”

Broussard said he didn’t recall voting on the plan in 1998, when he chaired the parish council. Maestri, however, said the council approved the plan as part of a larger emergency operations strategy that Broussard voted for in 2001, according to parish records.

Blaine LeCesne, a Loyola University law professor, said despite the progression of several lawsuits, plaintiffs against Broussard face long odds given legal protection afforded public officials.

“Unless they commit some grossly negligent, highly reckless conduct, generally the courts are not quick to hold them responsible for those discretionary acts,” LeCesne said.

Danny Buckman, a Broussard supporter, said his flood-damaged Metairie neighborhood used to be filled with lawn signs calling for his ouster.

“I see him as a human being who had to make tough decisions,” said Buckman, 47, a school custodian.

Others are less forgiving. Reading accounts of Broussard’s sworn statements reminded Settoon of a placard in Broussard’s office: “The Buck Stops Here.”

“The buck slipped right past him,” she said.