Kristen Morales, a controversial top deputy at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, should reimburse taxpayers for more than $161,000 in legal expenses after state and federal judges dismissed her claims that she was wrongfully fired by the city's Office of Inspector General, the OIG argued in a court filing this week.
The New Orleans Civil Service Commission, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Louisiana Supreme Court had already sided with the OIG — all unanimously — when Morales took her case to federal court in October 2021.
That action violated legal doctrines that prohibit cases from being re-filed after they’ve already received a final judgment, the OIG argued. A federal judge agreed, dismissing Morales’s lawsuit last month.
In the 18-month interim, the OIG’s lawyers billed for more than 500 hours of work gathering documents, hiring experts and preparing responses to Morales’s complaint and three subsequent amended complaints. The fees totaled more than $96,000.
The OIG also hired a forensic firm after investigators discovered “improper and sexually explicit materials” on Morales’s work computer after she was fired for unrelated reasons in January 2021.
Because the materials posed an “obviously” fireable offense, they later became key evidence against Morales’s claims of wrongful termination, the OIG said. Forensic auditors billed the OIG more than $65,000.
Stephanie Dovalina, an attorney for Morales, said Morales was never allowed to review the firm’s findings and doesn't know what materials the OIG is referring to. Dovalina noted that Morales was a criminal investigator and occasionally reviewed sensitive material as part of her job. Morales was also sent explicit images by an ex-partner without her consent, Dovalina said.
“It is deeply disturbing that they might exploit this traumatic experience as an attempt to continue to harass and silence Ms. Morales,” Dovalina said.
The OIG alleges the content was downloaded onto Morales's computer from her cell phone, and that she also shared the material with another city employee, who isn't named.
Michel said he couldn't comment because of the pending litigation.
Dovalina said the “exorbitant” fees that Inspector General Ed Michel is now seeking to recoup don’t square with the case's limited use of expensive legal processes, like depositions. “These fees are outrageous considering the minimal work conducted on the federal case,” she said.
Morales had alleged she was fired by Michel in retaliation for filing a formal discrimination complaint, and earlier allegations that she was treated differently from her male counterparts in the criminal division.
Michel countered that he fired her for not being truthful about giving away an office cell phone without permission. That hit on her credibility rendered her useless as an investigator, Michel said. The Civil Service Commission upheld the firing, and the state’s appellate and high courts later dismissed Morales’s appeals.
Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson brought Morales on as a top deputy last summer, putting Morales in charge of IT and investigations.
Hutson previously quarreled with the OIG when she served as the city's Independent Police Monitor, a position that initially fell under the inspector general's umbrella. A Michel predecessor, Ed Quatrevaux, tried to fire Hutson while she campaigned in 2015 to establish the IPM as a separate entity, a split that Quatrevaux later agreed to and was approved by New Orleans voters.
More recently, Morales was one of four deputies Hutson said she was forcing out in March after revelations that the office spent around $18,000 to house more than a dozen deputies, including Morales, at downtown hotels during Carnival.
However, Morales is the only one who has not been let go. Hutson has said she’s needed Morales to stay on because she’s the only employee qualified for the IT work she handles.
Morales remains the department’s second-highest paid deputy, with a $155,000 salary.
In a statement, Hutson — who has called Morales a personal friend — vaguely referred to Morales's legal battles, stating "standing up for what is right can be difficult, especially when faced with opposition and attacks."
"I have spent my entire career standing with victims of harm and will continue to do that with this matter," Hutson added. She declined to comment further, describing the litigation as pending.
Morales has appealed the dismissal in her federal case.