Thursday, March 31, 2005

A federal jury in New Orleans yesterday determined that the city’s first black district attorney discriminated against dozens of white employees in January 2003 by summarily replacing them with black employees days after he took office.

The jury found that Eddie Jordan acted illegally but did not hold him personally responsible. The plaintiffs were awarded almost $1.8 million in back pay and damages.

“What I wanted was a win. Money was not the issue,” plaintiff Clemens Herbert told reporters. “He was trying to disguise racial discrimination through politics, and the jury saw through it.”

The 10 jurors — eight white and two black — deliberated about 14 hours during three days after a three-week trial.

With the parish in dire financial straits and Mr. Jordan not responsible financially, it was not known how the verdict could be implemented.

In closing arguments, plaintiffs’ attorney Clement Donelon told the jury, “I wouldn’t want you to ruin Mr. Jordan financially, but my clients want him to stop discriminating.”

Mr. Jordan said the verdict was wrong and the district attorney’s office simply could not pay the amounts the jury determined were owed to the former employees.

“We are deeply disappointed in the verdict,” Mr. Jordan said yesterday. “We thought the facts as well as the law was on our side. Unfortunately, the jury decided differently. … We will exercise our appellate rights.”

“I still maintain that I did not use race as a factor in my hiring practices,” he said.

The plaintiffs, 43 staff members among the 53 whites who had been fired barely a week after Mr. Jordan took office, claimed that many of those released had more experience and higher test scores, and had done nothing to warrant their sudden firings.

Mr. Jordan’s purge got rid of more than two-thirds of the 77 whites his office had in positions that did not require that they be lawyers — clerks, investigators like Mr. Herbert, child-support enforcement workers and others.

During the trial, the plaintiffs spent considerable time demonstrating that many of Mr. Jordan’s hires, all of them blacks, had less experience and scored considerably lower on performance evaluations than the staffers who were replaced.

Mr. Jordan and a top deputy conceded that point, saying experience was not necessarily their top consideration. Instead, they testified, those hired were often loyalists who had worked to elect Mr. Jordan.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys showed that the percentage of blacks among non-lawyers in the Jordan office doubled, to more than 80 percent in more than a month.

Mr. Donelon said the office showed no financial gain from the staff shake-up and in many cases hired black replacements with questionable qualifications.

“What else is there but race?” he asked.

Mr. Jordan testified that he did not consider race in replacing most of the office’s support staff, but that he personally asked all 56 assistant district attorneys to remain in their jobs.

“That’s not behavior consistent with racially discriminatory intent,” he said.

Mr. Jordan has become one of New Orleans’ most visible public figures. As U.S. attorney, he charged and convicted former Gov. Edwin Edwards.

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