Tape Recording Required For Questioning Of Firefighter During Executive Session

In September 2009, the executive board of Local 1694 of the International Association of Fire Fighters discovered that its president, Captain Steve Odom, had made unauthorized debit card purchases and ATM withdrawals from the Association’s bank account. These unauthorized debit card purchases and withdrawals went unnoticed because the Association had opted to receive online bank statements, and the Association’s secretary-treasurer failed to monitor the statements monthly.

The Executive Board notified the Fire Chief of their discovery of these unauthorized purchases. An investigation resulted in a determination that more than $10,289 of Odom’s expenditures and withdrawals were not business related. Odom failed to present receipts for the majority of the purchases to prove their purpose. He resigned from his position as the Association president, but not from employment with the Ouchita Parish Fire Department.

The Fire Chief determined that Odom’s conduct warranted termination, and submitted his findings and recommendations to the “police jury.” A “police jury” is an artifact of Louisiana’s governmental system, and is the rough equivalent of a City Council in other parts of the country. At its meeting, the Police Jury voted to discuss the Fire Chief’s recommendations in an executive session.

Odom was present at the executive session, and he answered questions asked by the Police Jury. The Police Jury deliberated briefly and returned to the public police jury meeting. The Police Jury decided to uphold the Fire Chief’s recommendation to terminate Odom.

Odom challenged his termination in the Louisiana Court of Appeals, arguing among other things that the executive session of the Police Jury should have been electronically recorded. A Louisiana statute requires all “interrogations” of fire department employees to “be recorded in full.” Another section of the same statute provides that “no fire employee shall be disciplined, demoted, dismissed or be subject to any adverse action unless the investigation is conducted in accordance with this statute.”

Overturning Odom’s discharge, the Court found that it could “easily ascertain the definition of ‘interrogation’ as being clear and unambiguous. During the executive session, Odom was questioned by the Police Jury. This action clearly falls within the definition of an ‘interrogation.’ Further, during oral arguments that took place at this court, counsel for the Police Jury conceded that an interrogation took place during this executive session.

“Since Odom’s interrogation during the Police Jury’s executive session was related to Odom’s disciplinary matter, it should have been recorded. The Police Jury did not act in good faith for cause due to its failure to record the executive session. Odom’s voluntary participation in the unrecorded executive session cannot be viewed as a waiver of the recording requirement.”

The Town’s disappointment with the Court’s decision likely ended when the Court turned to the remedy. The Court found that “since the Police Jury did not comply with the law, the disciplinary actions taken against Odom are absolutely null and deemed to never have existed. However, after a careful review of the Firefighters’ Bill of Rights, we failed to find any provision prohibiting the Police Jury from reinstituting an investigation of this matter. Additionally, since this case involves a civil matter, a new investigation regarding Odom’s conduct would not constitute double jeopardy. The Fire Chief can initiate a second investigation regarding Odom’s actions.”

Ouachita Parish Police Jury v. Ouachita Parish Fire Protection Dist. No. 1 Civil Service Bd., 2011 WL 4374592 (La. App. 2011).

This article appears in the December 2011 issue.