BATON ROUGE (CN) – Louisiana and one of its state auditors conducted a fraudulent investigation against a medical facilities developer to get him fired and ultimately kill the quasi-public agency he led, the developer claims in court.
In a complaint filed in the East Baton Rouge District Court, Jacob Johnson says he was hired in October 2011 to be executive director of the Health Education Authority of Louisiana (HEAL), an entity charged with developing a medical corridor in New Orleans and financing the construction of several medical facilities under the auspices of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.
But as the effort proceeded, Johnson says, the state and co-defendant auditor Daryl Purpera sought to “tie a noose around his neck and let him hang there” with a volley of selective findings that made it appear he was stealing money from the development agency and otherwise failing to fulfill his duties.
Johnson says after he learned of Purpera’s audits and their negative findings, he began speaking with employees of the state legislative auditor’s office and learned that the department’s undersecretary, Jeff Reynolds, repeatedly made disparaging remarks about him, mainly related to his being black.
Johnson maintains Reynolds believed a black man couldn’t possibly be qualified to run an entity like HEAL, and director the auditor to reach conclusions that supported this view.
Johnson says this isn’t the first time state officials have tried to discredit a black person in a role of authority, claiming the legislative auditor’s office previously targeted the state court system after Bernette Joshua Johnson a Democratic lawyer from New Orleans, became the first black chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2013.
The audit report ultimately prepared for HEAL said Johnson was paid an exorbitant salary while not doing any work.
Specifically, the report prepared by Purpera accused Johnson of “malfeasance, misgovernment, illegal activities, and misappropriation of funds,” the complaint says.
A press release accompanying the audit report said that despite the fact HEAL’s expenses increased 153 percent between 2012 and 2016, the agency had not funded the construction of a medical facility since 2004.
Additionally, it said HEAL “had no transition plan in place” after new legislation transferred the agency to the Department of Education under the Board of Regents — a move allegedly sought by Johnson that compromised HEAL’s ability to pay its employees.
As a result of the audit, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson introduced S.B. 224 on April 10 to abolish HEAL and transfer its duties to the governor’s office.
Johnson seeks unspecified damages and payment of his litigation costs on claims of defamation and negligence.
In an interview with Courthouse News Monday morning, Purpera said Johnson’s accusations were unfounded, untrue and “insulting to the organization.”
“We will certainly defend this office,” he said.
According to the auditor, Johnson “did not refute the facts that were laid out in the report” at the meeting at which it was discussed.
Purpera went to suggest Johnson’s accusations were retaliatory against the report and the auditors.
“When they can’t refute the facts, they try to shoot the messenger,” he said.
Purpera also said the audit was ordered not to target Johnson as a person, but as part of a larger effort to reduce waste, fraud and abuse in Louisiana government.
“We’re a fact-finder. That’s what we do,” Purpera said.
Johnson’s attorney, Jill Craft, could not immediately be reached for comment.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article failed to properly convey Jacob Johnson’s employment status at Health Education Authority of Louisiana. Though Johnson’s describes an attempt to fire him, it does not describe such efforts as successful. Courthouse News apologizes for the error.