In Acadia Parish, A Family Empire Built Through the Clerk of Court’s Office

During the past four years, Robby Barousse has received nearly $1 million in salary and benefits as Clerk of Court for Acadia Parish. It’s helped him pay for a newly-constructed home and a luxury SUV. And it could be the final chapter of political life for a family that has held power since 1886.

In the late summer of 1999, after a career spanning more than four decades, Andy Barousse (pronounced BAH-roos) finally decided it was time to pass the reins of the family business over to his 35-year-old son Robby. Andy had been in charge since 1968; it was the same job his father had held until the day he died.

For 59 of the past 68 years, the Acadia Parish Clerk of Court’s Office has been led by three generations of Barousse men. It is supposed to be an elected position, but in practice, the Barousses very rarely have attracted a challenger.

Clerk of Court is not the most glamorous title. Most voters have only a vague understanding of the job’s responsibilities, which are almost entirely ministerial. The Barousses have controlled the office, in part, because in Acadia Parish, they belong to a family dynasty established decades before Ambassador Joseph Kennedy began telling his friends that his young son, Joe Jr., would become President one day.

Unlike other family dynasties, the Barousses haven’t sought a spotlight outside the confines of the small, rural parish in southwest Louisiana their family has called home since 1837.

So, in 1999, when Andy pulled a fast one and retired on the final day of qualifying for another term, ensuring his son Robby could benefit from the power of incumbency and win without opposition, there wasn’t much of an outrage. The clerk had always been a Barousse, and what did the clerk do anyway? Who cares?

This year, though, for the first time since the sixties, the race for Acadia Parish Clerk of Court appears to be competitive. (To be sure, because it is such a small race, no one has bothered to conduct a poll).

Emily Stoma, a former bank executive from Crowley who lost a recent bid for mayor, decided to challenge Robby Barousse, and if the heated rhetoric that’s been exchanged by supporters of both candidates is any indication, Acadia Parish voters could be in for a long night next Saturday.

Stoma and Barousse are both registered Republicans. This has nothing to do with partisan politics.

Instead, the race is shaping up as a referendum on public corruption, and Stoma has put Barousse and his fiefdom directly into the spotlight they’ve hoped to avoid.

After receiving a trove of public records and internal reports from two sources, both of whom requested anonymity because of concerns over retribution and online harassment, I decided to do some digging. I grew up in Alexandria, which is around the same size as Acadia Parish, and I know personally the ways in which local, small town politics can often be almost comically vicious.

The race for Acadia Parish Clerk of Court, I soon realized, contains all of the components of a classic Louisiana political drama: A powerful family, a small town, allegations of corruption, piles of money, petty dramas, and, beneath the surface, a deep connection to history. Huey P. Long even makes an appearance.

I have no dog in this hunt. I don’t know either candidate, and frankly, to me, the ultimate outcome of this particular election is the least interesting aspect of the story.

Acadia Parish Clerk of Court may not be the most glamorous title, but public records confirm the most troubling claim Emily Stoma has made against her opponent: Robby Barousse has earned a fortune from the job.

Since his last election four years ago, he has taken in approximately $979,000 from taxpayers.

His car allowance is an astonishing $2,000 a month, and records indicate he is the owner of, among other things, a luxury Range Rover Sport and a newly-constructed home.

This year, Stoma’s focus on Barousse’s compensation seems to have struck a nerve. On Facebook, Stoma’s campaign page has received a steady supply of vitriol from a handful of Barousse’s most loyal supporters. To be sure, both campaigns have swapped allegations of yard sign thievery, and there are nasty rumors being circulated about family members of both candidates, none of which merit attention.

These documents, however, are worth considering:

Barousse has been the subject of public scrutiny before. In 2011, Wally Pierce of the Independent reported that Barousse’s chief deputy had circulated an inter-office memo announcing a new fitness program that was, in actuality, nothing more than a poorly-disguised attempt to force employees to canvass neighborhoods and raise money for Barousse’s reelection campaign.

He withstood the criticism at the time, partly because none of the dozen or so people on the office’s payroll were covered by civil service protections. They were all at-will. Barousse could fire any of them for any reason. At least that was the logic at the time.

In hindsight, there is a special irony about the Acadia Parish Clerk of Court’s sham fitness program: Employees had been told that if Barousse’s opponent won, then they’d likely lose not only their jobs but also their retirement benefits. Funding was tight.

It was a lie.

Robby Barousse had been in office for more than a decade before someone decided to challenge him; the only person whose job was threatened by the election was him. So Barousse went into full-scale panic mode, and his fear-mongering paid off.

After winning the first election in his life, Barousse gave himself and his chief deputy generous raises.

Last.year alone, when you account for his entire compensation package, Barousse was one of the highest-paid elected officials in the entire state, according to a database that documents the salaries of government workers. He was also the highest-paid public employee in Acadia Parish, taking in $43,000 more in 2018 than Sheriff K.P. Gibson.

In nearby Lafayette Parish, the Clerk of Court receives a base salary slightly higher than Barousse, but when you begin adding up all of the benefits, Barousse surges ahead. Lafayette, it is worth noting, has a population nearly four-times larger than the population of Acadia, and not surprisingly, its Clerk of Court is responsible for nearly four-times the workload as well.

“Material Weaknesses”: Missing Money, Trips to Vail and Florida, and a Six-Figure Check to the Sheriff

Stoma’s scrutiny has resulted in others coming forward with allegations of misappropriation and vote tampering, and though nothing definitive appears in the public record to support the claims about election interference, Barousse’s office has had some- let’s just call them “accounting issues.”

Recently, according to two different independent audits, Barousse’s office has repeatedly failed to comply with Louisiana’s Uniform Unclaimed Property Act, which mandates the office transfer any and all unclaimed funds to the state treasury after five years. It’s more interesting than it sounds.

In late 2015, an independent audit of Barousse’s office conducted by the Lafayette accounting firm Kolder, Champagne, Slaven, and Co. uncovered a series of alarming details, which they cited as material weaknesses, noting that there was a reasonable possibility that financial “misstatements” continue to occur if Barousse didn’t correct “deficiencies” in “internal controls.” It was a polite way of saying that he needed to get his act together; otherwise, he’d be in some deep trouble.

First, the firm found that Barousse could not properly account for 177 uncashed checks his office had issued, totaling $160,307; again, per state law, that money should have been given to the state treasury. Typically, when a clerk issues checks that end up never being cashed, it’s because the recipient has either passed away or moved to a different address. But $140,000 of the $160,000 should have been sent to someone known by everyone in Acadia Parish: The sheriff. Following the report, Barousse managed to remember the address of the sheriff’s department, and he finally paid up. But he still can’t seem to figure out where to send the other $20,000, and according to a more recent audit, his office continued to be in violation of the Unclaimed Property Act.

Second, the Lafayette accounting firm noted that Barousse had charged the clerk’s office for three out-of-state vacations: $4,350 for a trip to Destin, Florida; $2,681 for another Florida beach retreat in tony Bonita Springs, and $3,360 for an excursion to Vail, Colorado. For some reason, the auditor believed the expenditures weren’t an appropriate use of public money, notwithstanding Barousse’s claim that he’d merely been attending continuing education classes required of all clerks of court. Later, he said he had reimbursed the office for hotel “overages” and room charges, and he promised to find more convenient and less expensive destinations in the future.

A couple of years later, he hired a different accounting firm to conduct his office’s next audit.

If Robby Barousse had been appointed and not elected, the audit findings would have been more than sufficient grounds for termination, if not criminal prosecution. (After billing for a trip to Colorado, a friend of mine not only lost his job in government, he was also arrested and charged with theft). But the people of Acadia Parish have, thus far, been willing to look the other way. There, it pays to be a Barousse.

So, how is Huey P. Long connected to any of this?

Robby Barousse’s grandfather Homer P. (in the red tie) stands in front of his great-grandfather Edgar Baroesse’s general store in Branch Louisiana. Archival Photo colorized and restored by the Bayou Brief.

Coda:

One hundred and thirty-three years ago, when Acadia Parish was officially created, Louisiana Gov. Samuel D. McEnery appointed Robby’s great-grand uncle, Homer Barousse, to serve on its very first police jury.

In 1837, when he was a teenager, Homer Barousse’s father Jean left his home in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France and set sail for Louisiana. He’d settle in a region teeming with other newly-arrived French-speaking immigrants, many of whom had made the voyage after being forced out of their homes in a part of present-day Canada known as Acadie. They became known as Cajuns, culturally distinct from those like Jean who came from the Motherland.

Jean Barousse married, fathered a family, and opened up a successful store in what is now Church Point, Louisiana. When he died in February of 1893, his estate was valued at the equivalent of $600,000. Jean had two sons, Edgar, who expanded the franchise to the town of Branch, and Homer, the politician.

Edgar named one of his sons Homer Pierre, in honor of his brother, and Homer P., as he was known, later followed his uncle’s footsteps into public office, winning election as Acadia Parish’s Clerk of Court.

Image courtesy of the Rayne Acadian-Tribune.

But Huey P. Long wasn’t nearly as close with Homer P. Barousse as he was with Uncle Homer, who parlayed his appointment to the Police Jury into a storied career as a powerful state Senator.

By the time the Kingfish arrived in Baton Rouge, state Sen. Barousse was already an institution and a quiet but fierce behind-the-scenes operator. He was the rare politician who accumulated power without generating headlines. During his first year as a legislator, he didn’t even author a single bill, and he wasn’t fond of public speaking. In other words, he was the polar opposite of Huey P. Long.

Yet he would become one of Huey’s most loyal allies, and famously, in 1929, as the so-called anti-Long faction pushed for his impeachment and removal from office, Huey visited Homer Barousse at the Heidelberg Hotel in order to plead with him to sign onto a document known as the Round Robin. Huey was shoring up the votes he needed to stay in power, even before the legislature opened debate on his removal.

Truth be told: Huey didn’t need to ask. Homer Barousse was a loyalist; he had already turned down a $50,000 bribe from an anti-Long colleague hoping it’d be enough to change his mind.

Homer Barousse outlived Huey P. Long by one year. When he passed away in 1936, he had the distinction of serving alongside thirteen different Louisiana governors.

Despite his friendship with Long, state Sen. Barousse was known for his strong opposition to public graft and corruption. Notably, he had championed a bill that required local and parish agencies to provide a detailed monthly accounting for their expenditures, perhaps recognizing that if no one cares to pay attention, politicians would be likely to shower themselves with generous pay raises, fancy cars, and all-expense paid vacations.

In 1976, the acclaimed historian Greg Lavergne published a definitive essay about the life of Louisiana state Sen. Homer Barousse for the Attakapas Gazette, and fortunately, he has generously shared the essay on his personal website.