Pin It

The Woman Behind the Curtains 

In 2003, Kimberly Williamson Butler won an upset election to become clerk of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. Before long, stories began emerging from her office about security cameras, religious meetings, campaign work -- and one expensive set of

Finally, there it was — the bill for those pricey drapes. They had become legendary among people who worked for Kimberly Williamson Butler. The invoice wasn't easy to get — it took Gambit Weekly three months to wrest a copy from Butler, the clerk of Criminal District Court.

The long-sought invoice bears a Hurwitz Mintz crest at the top and a total amount due of $2,459 at the bottom. The center of the bill describes in detail 39 total yards of fine fabrics — oyster, dusk and flowered — created to order, lined with sateen and installed on two windows in Butler's office.

Gambit first made a public records request for the invoice on Oct. 5, 2004. Two weeks later, Butler stood in her office, next to the drapes, and said that her staff couldn't put their hands on that particular bill. But, she asserted, these draperies were nothing costly, nothing special. "The blinds are old, they don't work real well," she said, moving the slats behind the curtains with an extra effort. But, to save money, she kept them anyway.

If her staffers were able to locate that invoice, Butler said, it would show how frugal she had been in redecorating her office. One thing was clear, she insisted — the draperies were not from Hurwitz Mintz. "I think they came from JCPenney, if I'm not mistaken," Butler said.

When Gambit obtained the invoice showing Hurwitz Mintz as the source of the drapes, Butler explained why she'd been confused. "My administrative assistant actually did the purchase," she said. "I gave her a budget to work with, and as long as she was within the budget, it was not an issue for me whether they were from Kmart, from JCPenney, Hurwitz or wherever."

She simply didn't have time to micromanage every little detail, Butler said. "I've got a multi-million dollar organization to run. I'm not picking out curtains."

Like Tammy Faye Bakker's air-conditioned doghouse, the draperies may be symbolic. Their price tag carries a message about a common Louisiana phenomenon — the often-blurred distinctions between public office and personal privilege. That message resonates even more because those curtains hang in an office known for low pay, where some full-time employees qualify for food stamps and Section 8 housing.

More than a year ago, in the wake of Butler's election, new employees seemed eager to fall in step behind her. Here was a woman who had risen to be Mayor Ray Nagin's chief administrative officer (CAO), the first African-American woman to hold that position. During Butler's tenure at City Hall, she gained public sympathy for enduring adolescent antics from other members of Nagin's inner circle and for Nagin's clumsy handling of her forced resignation in April 2003.

Several months later, Butler re-emerged to capture the office of clerk of Criminal District Court under the campaign motto "Do the Right Thing!" In the November 2003 run-off, Butler received 57 percent of the vote against former City Councilman Johnny Jackson Jr. — a stunning victory and a political repudiation of her former boss. By January, The Times-Picayune was discussing her as a serious threat to Nagin's second term as mayor.

Almost immediately, the new clerk began redecorating. A few days after New Year's 2004, Hurwitz Mintz delivered an "executive desk" ($3,040) and an "executive chair" ($1,019) for Butler's executive office. Soon, Butler would assert her command in other ways. By the time Hurwitz Mintz installed the draperies in March 2004, the new clerk had hired an armed bodyguard, installed cameras in the clerk's office without notifying employees, and arranged for an unmanned Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's squad car to remain parked in front of her home 24 hours a day.



YOU KNOW YOU'VE MADE headlines in New Orleans when your face shows up in a Mardi Gras parade. In February, the Krewe of Muses devoted part of a float to a fuming caricature of Kimberly Williamson Butler and one simple caption: "Where are my damn voting machines?"

During the Sept. 18, 2004, primary election, voters in 90 precincts — 1 in 5 citywide — could not cast ballots when they arrived at the polls that morning because voting machines had not been delivered. Nearly 200 machines were fired up more than an hour late; 41 others were at least six hours late. The problems went across the Associated Press wire and made national headlines. "Missing Voting Machines Snarl Election," announced the next day's New York Times.

Butler received widespread criticism because she initially refused to accept any responsibility for the debacle. In her initial press conference, she even suggested that someone had paid drivers not to deliver some voting machines. She then failed to appear for the first big hearing on the matter, convened Oct. 1 by the Joint Legislative Governmental Affairs Committee in New Orleans City Hall. Instead, she was next door in Civil District Court defending her office in election challenges brought by two candidates. Later, in January, she rankled legislators again when she missed another committee hearing, this time because she was on medical leave.

In the end, the clerk didn't fare well in either venue. Judge Yada Magee found "substantial" irregularities in the Sept. 18 election and excoriated Butler in her Oct. 2 decision. Butler's office had argued to the judge that voters were not deprived of the right to vote "because they could have gone back, some for the third time, to vote once the machines were delivered," Magee wrote. The judge rejected that argument in a scathing conclusion: "This court finds that argument reprehensible and without merit; in fact equates it with, ‘They could have passed the test, paid the poll tax or recited the preamble to the Constitution and voted.'"

A week later, Butler seemed unrepentant as she spoke to a roomful of poll commissioners at the Jewish Community Center. "What we've learned is that our process is not prepared for anything out of the ordinary — and the evacuation for Hurricane Ivan was out of the ordinary," she said.

Once the spotlight dimmed, Butler seemed less defensive. During a Gambit interview in mid-October, Butler sounded contrite. "More than anything, I learned that I have a lot to learn," she said.

She tried to explain what happened by using a metaphor that, she says, came naturally to her as a native of Buffalo, N.Y., and a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan. Recalling the 1991 Super Bowl, she explained that the Bills were behind 20-19 late in the game — and all they needed to win was a field goal. "Kicker Scottie Norwood, we used to call him Mr. Automatic," she said. All season long, whenever quarterback Jim Kelly got the ball to within range of a 45-yard field goal, it went through the uprights — guaranteed.

Then, in the closing seconds of that game, Norwood had the chance to win the game — the Super Bowl — with a field goal when the Bills' late drive stalled.

"All of a sudden, it wasn't a 45-yard field goal — it was 47, and his kick went wide right," said Butler, her right leg going high in the air to mimic the kick.

Hurricane Ivan created a similar situation for her office, Butler said. "We practiced," she said, swinging her leg, as if aiming for a goalpost. "But we'd just never been pushed to this limit.



"IT'S NO SECRET THAT church is Butler's second home. "City Cathedral — that's my social aid and pleasure club," she says. "You can always find me on Sundays at the door of 8801 Chef Menteur Highway."

Despite staff claims to the contrary, her church and her office do not mix, Butler asserts. "My faith only guides how I do things," she says. "I come to work and I work."

She has belonged to the non-denominational church for three years. When she took office last January, she hired a number of City Cathedral parishioners. That doesn't mean they get special treatment, says Butler. "I tell folks, ‘Showing up at my church might save your soul, but not your job.'"

In fact, Butler says, she even has reprimanded people for reading their Bible on the job — she absolutely doesn't allow it.

Claudia Battee tells a different story. Battee, an executive assistant fired by Butler in June 2004, filed a complaint the following month with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination on the basis of religion, age and race. On Nov. 18, the EEOC issued a "right to sue" letter; in February, Battee sued Butler in federal court.

The suit claims that Butler, in her role as clerk, created a hostile work environment that threatened Battee with the loss of her job "unless she joined defendant's church and sold tickets for defendant's political fundraisers." John O. Pieksen Jr., Battee's attorney, says the mistreatment went beyond isolated incidents. "It's our position that Butler instituted an official policy or custom in the clerk's office that unlawfully used religion as a factor in employment decisions such as hiring and firing."

No way, says Butler. She says Battee's complaint is "totally baseless." Butler adds that she looks forward to presenting her defense. "I welcome court time," she says, "because I believe in the justice system. I believe in open court that I'll be vindicated."

Butler's passion for her faith has long been discussed in City Hall and in the local media. Deborah Chapman, a former deputy clerk, says she experienced it first-hand. Gambit contacted Chapman after the newspaper requested and received a copy of her termination letter, which indicated that Chapman had complained about doing church and campaign work on office time. The June 18 termination letter, issued by Butler, chastised Chapman for "attempts to contrive that I have been miss appropriately [sic] resources — ‘campaign activities' — and inequitably hiring and distributing benefits to individuals hired from my church."

In an interview with Gambit, Chapman cites several instances that she says support her claims. On March 1, 2004, she says, she left work for the day but then got a call from Butler on her personal cell phone, saying, "Deborah, I need you to come to this meeting with me at 7."

Chapman agreed to go. "I assumed it was work-related," she says, and she returned to the office to meet Butler. The two drove together to the French Quarter, she says, where she found herself — to her surprise — sitting with City Cathedral parishioners from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Afterward, says Chapman, Butler asked her to contact radio stations, during work hours, for the church's groundbreaking — something she did begrudgingly, she says. "I told her that I was not comfortable with that."

Chapman also felt uncomfortable, she says, when Butler asked her to work on a May 25, 2004, golf tournament — a fundraising event to retire Butler's campaign debt. Chapman says she insisted that any work for the tournament be separate from work time. She says she soon found herself barred from tournament meetings, which were scheduled during office hours and attended by many employees.

To the accusations that the golf tournament was planned on office time, Butler has a short, simple response: "That's a lie," she says.

She likewise denies ever asking subordinates to attend a religious meeting. "I don't invite them," she says. "Most of the people in my Bible study I find on street corners and in supermarket lines." Furthermore, says Butler, she makes an extra effort to keep work and religion — and work and campaigning — separate.

But Chapman also recalls one day in Butler's office when Butler began reading to her and Battee the story of the seven seals from the Book of Revelation. As Chapman tells it, Butler said she had broken her first seal as Nagin's CAO, when she'd uncovered malfeasance in the city's taxicab bureau. She opened the second seal when investigators arrested brake-tag inspectors for bribes. The third came when she won the clerk's race. Now she had four more to break, she told them. Then, Chapman recalls, Butler told them that she planned next to be mayor for eight years, then open a worldwide ministry.

Butler says that she won't respond to specific allegations such as these, made by employees whom she fired. "If there was some validity there, I'd go with you point for point," Butler says. "But these are disgruntled individuals (Chapman and Battee) who were dismissed for valid reasons. I'm not going to comment on anything beyond that."

Other former and current employees say that Butler shows her political ambitions in other ways that have nothing to do with religion. A few employees mention, and Chapman confirms, that Butler was known for playing one tune loudly in her office and in her car as she drove with co-workers. The message wasn't subtle. The song is called, "We're Going to Take This City Back."



FOR MOST OF 2004, finding Butler's house in her neighborhood was as easy as looking for a criminal sheriff's squad car.

Last March, Butler contacted Interim Criminal Sheriff William Hunter because she feared for her safety, according to sheriff's spokesperson Renee Lapeyrolerie. "There was some activity," Butler says. "I had people trailing, following me, and other things that gave me cause for concern."

Hunter responded with an unmanned sheriff's office squad car, parked in front of Butler's then-residence on Jefferson Avenue "as a deterrent," says Lapeyrolerie.

When Butler and her husband purchased a house in Gentilly, on Lafaye Street, the car followed and once again sat round-the-clock, parked on the street in front of their house.
That wasn't the only favor Hunter did for Butler. In early 2004, Hunter's deputies began allowing Butler's bodyguard into the courthouse with a firearm.

Firearms are banned in Orleans Parish courthouses. In Criminal District Court, where Butler works, the rule applies even to the New Orleans Police Department. When officers are called to testify, they leave their firearms in lockers downstairs. That's because the courthouse is filled with people on trial for alleged criminal acts, and adding guns to the mix could create dangerous situations. Somehow, however, Butler bodyguard Mark Lawes — whom she hired as a part-time deputy docket clerk — was allowed to pack heat inside the courthouse. The very idea of it baffles longtime courthouse employees.

According to Louisiana law, anyone wishing to carry a concealed handgun into certain public buildings, including courthouses, must first obtain a special officer's commission. In New Orleans, those commissions are awarded by the New Orleans Police Department. NOPD spokesman Lt. Marlon Defillo says that his department didn't grant Lawes a commission card; he suggests that perhaps Chief Judge Calvin Johnson had given his approval. Johnson, however, says that no one had notified him that a clerk's office employee was carrying a gun.

Likewise, Hunter, through Lapeyrolerie, says that he didn't give Lawes any sort of commission. Hunter refused to answer any other questions on the subject except to say that no one was allowed to carry firearms into the courthouse after October 2004 — the month Gambit began asking questions about the practice.

Lawes, reached at night at one of the local bars he owns, says that he is not a law enforcement official but declined to say much else. "Didn't they give you a copy of my commission and all that?" he asked. "I distinctly remember them asking all those questions before and I filled out all the necessary paperwork. I know that y'all asked for some type of paperwork and that they all gave it to you." He handed everything over to Butler's chief deputy Keith Barnes two or three months ago, he said.

Indeed, more than three months ago, in a November public records request, Gambit had requested a copy of Lawes' commission, the application for such a commission, and the registration papers for his firearm. But the clerk's lawyer, Deborah Wilson, said that Butler's office had no such paperwork in house.

In her October interview with Gambit, Butler confirmed that she had hired a part-time bodyguard — Lawes — but said that his primary duty was making bank deposits. The firearm was necessary, she said, because at certain times of the year the clerk's office takes in thousands of dollars in bonds, expungement fees, and fees for copies.

Several employees scoff at the idea that Lawes primarily took money to the bank. Keith Jones, who had worked in the clerk's office for nearly a decade under former Clerk Edwin Lombard, says that he continued to make deposits even after Lawes started showing up in the office.

Lawes and his gun were most likely to make an appearance, Jones says, when Butler fired someone. Jones' longtime co-worker Teri MacMurray agrees. "Mark Lawes showed up with that badge hanging around his neck whenever anyone got axed," MacMurray says.

Contrary to Butler's assertions, Jones says, no one had ever risked an unarmed ride to the bank with thousands of public dollars. Very occasionally, he says, if there was a large amount to deposit, they would simply ask a deputy to accompany them.

According to both Jones and MacMurray, Lawes was not making frequent visits to the bank while they were there. Instead, during January and February, Jones and Battee made most of the deposits, MacMurray says.

On Feb. 17, MacMurray was asked to make a deposit but objected because she also was authorized to sign checks. (Auditing procedures require that a person who writes checks or prepares deposits should not also make deposits.) She was fired later that day.

MacMurray and Jones both emphasize that their assertions can be easily proven. Anyone who takes a deposit to the bank initials a sign-out log that is kept in the clerk's office. In mid-November, Gambit requested a copy of that log under the Louisiana Public Records Law. Butler's office has not yet complied with that request. This newspaper has sued Butler to obtain that and other public records that she has refused to turn over. (See "You Have Been Served.")



LAWES' MERE PRESENCE suggests that Butler had concerns about her safety — and perhaps a distrust of others around her. That notion was underscored when Butler installed cameras to watch her employees.

Sometime in early 2004, Butler contacted a Harvey-based contractor, Crescent Technology Group, about security cameras. In February, Crescent Technology workmen installed three cameras in the clerk's office, linked to a digital recorder.

According to Louisiana Secretary of State records, Crescent Technology is owned by Charles A. Gibson of Marrero, who, Butler admits, once owned a business with her husband, David Butler. Clerk's office records show that, between January and October 2004, Crescent Technology received $29,849.05 from the clerk of Criminal District Court, much of it for Internet installation. Despite city policy requiring written bids for any purchases totaling more than $5,000, the clerk's office was unable to furnish Gambit with any records of public bids for goods or services from Crescent Technology.

The cameras also created another potential problem — employees weren't notified that they were in use, which could raise workplace-privacy issues. Butler acknowledges that no memo went out. "A couple people here knew," she says, explaining that the cameras' installation was prompted by "stuff that had gone missing," including a laptop computer.

Gambit
, in another public records request, asked for a copy of the police report, item number or insurance claim for the allegedly missing laptop. Butler's office produced none of those records.

click to enlarge  
  •  
Pin It

Tags: ,

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Submit an event Jump to date

Latest in News

  • Interview: Benjamin Booker

    Alex Woodward interviews the new New Orleans musician whose critically acclaimed debut album mixes punk, pop and blues
    • Aug 18, 2014
  • Beatings in St. Roch roil the neighborhood

    Jeanie Riess talks to two of the men who were beaten in St. Roch; NOPD says there’s no proof attacks were related
    • Aug 18, 2014
  • One night on Frenchmen

    Authentic New Orleans? Touristville? Or both? Four Gambit writers spent nine hours on Frenchmen on a Friday night
    • Aug 11, 2014
  • More »

© 2014 Gambit
Powered by Foundation