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Legislature needs to curb constables living large

Looks like the mainstream media finally is catching on to the open-ended nature of the constable office in Louisiana, and maybe that will spur legislative action to ensure that taxpayer resources get used in a more appropriate manner.

Regular readers of this space already have seen how the vague parameters to this elective office, designed to be part-time in nature, can be used to create a tidy income stream for a holder of it. What’s new here is how Jefferson Parish 2nd Justice District Constable Antoine “Tony” Thomassie has taken it to a whole new level.

Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:5807 gives a good idea of what constables may do, which generally is to serve processes from whichever Justice of the Peace court to which they are attached in their district. They also may collect suit costs and seize and sell movable and immovable property under orders of their courts. New Orleans has some special considerations for its constables, and some parishes allow their constables to appoint one or more deputies. Jefferson with East Baton Rouge allow an unlimited number of these. Constables are elected with six-year terms; the next round of elections for them is later this year.

By way of example, in Caddo Parish’s 5th District (Greenwood), with about 18,000 residents, there in calendar year 2012 Constable Don Majure made, in addition to his salary (these are set by the parish governing authority) of about $1,900, another roughly $15,600 in fees. He also spent nearly $12,000 in performing his duties, which include (known only because he volunteered this information; it’s not required on the simple affidavits the state uses) about two-thirds on use of a car equipped for patrol (which is not required for performance of the job) and a computer, with the remainder spent on office expenses and vehicle expenses (expressed as mileage reimbursement for the most part). In all, he made a little over $5,600. As most constables do, the excess was paid out as additional salary, although it may be kept in a fund to use on expenses in future years. Majure is retired from the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Undoubtedly some money collected by him was spent on things not really necessary to perform the job, but it was not entirely unreasonable. Contrast this with Thomassie in his district (Marrero) of 59,000 people. In 2012, he got a salary of over $21,000 from the parish. This is supposed to be a part-time position, yet for a location about three times larger in population than the example above (and more compact in geography), he gets paid over 10 times as much by the parish. This is the fault of parish elected officials that give such generous salaries.

But the nearly $69,000 in fees he got is on him, and one wonders where a constable could make that kind of money on the fee schedule above (for example, that’s the equivalent of attempting to serve – they don’t actually have to succeed – 6,900 subpoenas or one less than every two minutes working 2,000 hours a year). It’s not like JPs actually get a lot of business, as defined in R.S. 13:2586. They have limited jurisdiction and all concurrent with district courts, although parishes may broaden it to include some other matters that could significantly increase their duties, except that these are not supposed to be, unlike district courts, full-time positions. Yet somehow this court, that of Justice of the Peace Patrick DeJean, in 2012 collected over $137,000, half of which was paid out to Thomassie. (DeJean paid himself, including his $21,700 salary set by the parish, $35,000, but oddly did not account for the remaining amount, after expenses, of $48,820, which if not paid out to him should have gone into a fund. Despite the limited jurisdiction of the court, he also got some brand new quarters for it in recent years courtesy of the parish.)

Thomissee also removed nearly $49,000 in expenses (no other constable in the parish went above $2,000), most of which were related to “travel and other charges for yourself.” It boggles the mind that this could be for mileage; at 50 cents a mile and 250 work days of 8 hours a year, it would mean he drove about 470 miles a day, or almost 60 miles an hour, which implies he went up and down the Westbank Expressway (and only on the Marrero portion) constantly around the speed limit with no time left over to stop, or to do paperwork, or to hang around bars. The $43,000 or so left he treated as straight salary for this part-time job; keep in mind he has been employed during his constable tenure (over two decades) additionally by Jefferson Parish (including apparently being overpaid in a position he didn’t merit).

Besides dubious spending possibilities, Thomassie also is said to have taken advantage of the extra deputy opportunity to raise some more revenue. Some media outlets claim he sells the right to be a deputy constable for $20 a month. Legally, any expenditures to support deputies must be acknowledged, but in 2012 he reported no such expenses. So either a bunch of “deputies” are working for him free, or there’s some unusual arrangement going on where he pockets money for some unspecified benefits going to the “deputies.”

Regardless of the (lack of) propriety here, the larger issue is, even if all of this is above board, part-timers should not be in a position legally to make full-time pay off the taxpayer. The intent of justice of the peace courts was to settle small claims, and if there are so many issues out there that create such volume and bring in so many resources, then they should be handled by courts of general jurisdiction with full time staff and with access to police and/or sheriff’s departments to carry out their directives, and surely could accomplish the duties of a constable costing much less.

But as long as statute provides little in the way of checks or supervision on constables, this can happen, to the taxpayers’ detriment. And since statute regulates the office, the Legislature easily could write statute to provide that control (some apply to Orleans constables, for example), or to get rid of this archaic office that in most instances (according to their affidavits) find its occupants barely performing any functions at all. There’s no reason this can’t happen this session prior to scheduled elections for this office this fall.

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