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Business owner who settled federal racism complaint appointed by governor to elite board

1 year 1 month 2 weeks ago Thursday, May 25 2023 May 25, 2023 May 25, 2023 4:09 PM May 25, 2023 in News
Source: WBRZ

BATON ROUGE - The owner of a popular Lafayette-area butcher shop that was sanctioned by a federal judge and slapped with a consent decree due to racism was recently appointed to the State Police Commission.

Mark Aubrey Cole owns Don's Specialty Meats. A Don's employee alleged he was exposed to racist conditions while working there and that he was treated so badly that he quit in the summer of 2020. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Don's in September 2021; court records show Cole would have been served with the paperwork.

On the last day of March of this year, Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed Cole to the State Police Commission, which oversees discipline for all Louisiana state troopers. The governor's office said Thursday that Edwards was aware of the matter and that Cole's supporters continue to back the appointment, including a member of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus.

The WBRZ Investigative Unit spoke to Cole by telephone Thursday about the investigation. The case ended with orders that Don's pay the employee nearly $70,000 and set up training for company workers.

"All my employees had to go to classes once a year and for one more year," he said.

The EEOC said settlement efforts failed prior to its filing a lawsuit. Cole said he was not aware of what federal regulators alleged before the complaints were filed.

"I'm friends with plenty Blacks, and they're all from Lafayette and know that I'm not that character of a person," Cole said.

Edwards' office said a member of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, was among those who supported Cole's nomination. Cole is also among those who requested a Justice Department pattern-and-practice investigation of the State Police after the death of Ronald Greene

"Gov. Edwards was made aware of the EEOC's settlement with Don's last month and was assured by Sen. Boudreaux that he still supports the nomination," said a statement from spokeswoman Shauna Sanford in the governor's office.

Under the agreement reached in early 2022, Don's had to pay the worker $17,500 in back pay, plus pay him another $50,000 in damages.

A notice now posted at Don's under the EEOC's direction includes a statement that the company "has not admitted and does not admit that it engaged in any unlawful practices." The judge who agreed to the settlement declared that "this decree constitutes a judgment against Don's Specialty Meats Inc."

Cole added that Edwards was well aware of his past issues at his business, and that he even had a conversation with him.

"I did talk to him once about him, about letting him know that I had nothing to do with the EEOC," Cole said. "It happened in my business and has nothing to do with my character."

A lawyer who monitors State Police actions questioned Cole's appointment.

"This is either completely tone deaf or completely intentional," attorney Ron Haley said. "Either way, it's unacceptable for the community."

Haley has been on the front lines against injustice at Louisiana State Police. For years, he represented the family of Ronald Greene. Greene, a Black man, died in 2019 while in State Police custody. Initially, his family was told that Greene died in a crash. However, following a series of WBRZ Investigative Unit reports, it was revealed that evidence was hidden, phones were erased, and lies were told.

Louisiana State Police is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice to determine if the agency engaged in a pattern of disproportionately targeting minorities. That investigation is a top-to-bottom pattern-and-practice investigation into the agency.

For watchdogs and lawyers like Haley, this entire situation doesn't make sense.

"If you have someone who was successfully sued by the EEOC, for discriminating against Black people and you have State Police under a pattern-and-practice investigation for discriminating against Black people, it doesn't add up," Haley said.

Don's is among several butcher shops specializing in the production and sale of Cajun-style meats in areas around Lafayette. Its location in Scott is along heavily-traveled I-10, near other similar businesses that have made Scott the Boudin Capital of the World. Don's also has a store in Carencro along I-49.

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