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Jury says New Orleans DA guilty of bias

A federal jury determined that the New Orleans District Attorney  discriminated against fired employees.
New Orleans district attorney Eddie Jordan, and Leatrice Dupre, spokesperson for Jordan's office, leave the federal court house in New Orleans.Bill Haber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Days after taking office in 2003, New Orleans' first black district attorney fired 53 white employees and replaced them with blacks.

Eddie Jordan denied he fired the employees just because they are white, but a federal jury determined he discriminated against 43 of the workers who sued him and awarded them about $1.8 million in back pay and damages on Wednesday.

Unanimous verdict
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval could order that the fired white workers be reinstated, but lawyers consider this unlikely. Such mandates are rare, as they require continuing court supervision.

The jury _ made up of eight whites and two blacks _ returned its unanimous verdict in the third day of deliberations.

Plaintiffs' attorney Clement Donelon said he was elated.

"You may be able to fire people," Donelon said, "but don't do it because of race. That goes both ways."

Clemens Herbert, a former investigator who was among those fired, said: "What I wanted was a win. Money was not the issue. He was trying to disguise racial discrimination through politics, and the jury saw through it."

Jordan acknowledged he wanted to make the office more reflective of the city's racial makeup, but said he did not know the race of the people fired.

Under the judge's instructions, jurors had to find Jordan liable if they concluded the firings were racially motivated. The law bars the mass firing of a specific group, even if the intent is to create diversity.

Jordan, stoic in the courtroom as the verdict was read, told reporters he was disappointed and will appeal.

"We thought the facts as well as the law favored us. I still maintain that I did not use race as a factor in my hiring practices," he said.

Liable for the award
Jordan said the District Attorney's Office, which is liable for the award, cannot afford to pay the verdict. It was not immediately clear whether the state or city, or both, would ultimately be responsible for paying the money.

One of Louisiana's most prominent black politicians, Jordan was U.S. attorney before getting elected district attorney. As the chief federal prosecutor in New Orleans, he won a corruption conviction against former Gov. Edwin Edwards in 2000 for taking payoffs in return for riverboat licenses.

Eight days after taking office, Jordan fired 53 of 77 white non-lawyers _ investigators, clerks, child-support enforcement workers and the like _ and replaced them with blacks.

Months later, most of the whites sued him, and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission later made a preliminary finding that Jordan had been racially biased.

Jordan and a top deputy who testified admitted that experience was not necessarily their top consideration in filling openings. Instead, they made it plain they were looking to populate the office with loyalists.

The whites' lawyers argued that many of those who were fired had far more experience and scored higher in job interviews than blacks who were either hired anew or kept on.

The whites testified that they found themselves suddenly jobless, in late middle age, after years of working in law enforcement agencies, including the New Orleans Police Department.