Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Face of LASERS: Ken DeJean

Ken DeJean’s current business card reads:
Professional Retiree
Golfer • Fisherman • Grandparent
Soup/Gumbo/Etouffee Specialist

Yet, the card provides just a glimpse of the man. Now officially retired after serving 50 years under five attorneys general, DeJean’s accomplishments in the Department of Justice Civil Division are truly legendary.  From his first job bagging groceries at Capitol Grocery to litigating some of the most important cases on behalf of the State of Louisiana, DeJean’s story is one of dedication and concern for fellow citizens. 

He was born in New Orleans to parents in the medical field; DeJean’s father was a physician/surgeon and his mother a lab technician. At a young age, the family moved to Tallulah where his father went into private practice, operating a small clinic. After World War II, the DeJean family, now totaling nine, moved to Baton Rouge.

DeJean and his siblings lived off Lakeshore Drive, so many good times were had catching turtles and muskrats in the LSU Lakes. At University High, DeJean was a natural athlete, excelling in football, baseball, track, and golf. In 1958, he was asked to walk-on for the LSU football team, but his true love was golf.

At LSU, DeJean majored in Political Science with a minor in History. He was involved in ROTC and took advanced courses over two years to receive his commission in the Army. DeJean was selected for counter-intelligence and went to Fort Holabird in Baltimore, Maryland to test and interview at the U.S. Army Intelligence School. Known as the “Sneak and Peek” School, DeJean learned about defensive measures, photography, and how to pick locks. He was selected to attend the Army Language School at the Presidio of Monterey in California, but instead chose to go to law school. Not surprisingly, DeJean does not discuss specific details about the time he spent in counter-intelligence.

After leaving the Army, DeJean considered various career options as he planned for the future. He decided to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) because he thought law school would be interesting. DeJean scored well and was accepted into LSU Law School. After graduation, he passed the bar exam in 1965 and was offered a job by Judge Albert Tate, who at the time served on the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal. However, DeJean’s career was destined to take a different path. 

During law school, DeJean had worked as a clerk for Jack P.F. Gremillion, the Attorney General (AG) of Louisiana. After passing the bar, on a visit to the AG’s office, DeJean was offered a six week assignment to work with John Madden, a land and minerals attorney, on the Tidelands case. That first case landed him a permanent job and it would become one of the most important cases of his career. His work continued in the Civil Division under attorneys general Gremillion, William J. “Billy” Guste, Richard Ieyoub, Charles Foti, and Buddy Caldwell.  Eventually the case would be successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court, resulting in a settlement of offshore oil revenue in excess of $136 million for the state.

In 1972, Guste chose DeJean to be Chief of the Civil Division. Jack Yelverton headed up the Criminal Division of the AG’s office, and together, they worked to fulfill the mission of the agency by providing superior legal representation; interpretation, professional, and effective law enforcement; and public education programs for the people of the state.

At only 33 years old, DeJean became the First Assistant Attorney General, which brought many important responsibilities. Within the Civil Division, he represented the state, its departments and agencies, boards and commissions, and statewide elected officials. As DeJean’s responsibilities grew, the division evolved into the Department of Justice. A great portion of his work involved reviewing drafts of legal opinions for the governor, state auditor, state treasurer, state boards, agencies and commissions, and other state, parish, and municipal governing authorities. DeJean emphasized how important it was to him to provide good, quality legal advice.

Many controversial issues were addressed during his time in the Civil Division. Opinions were rendered on lobbying; desegregation cases were in the newspaper headlines; and, in General Gremillion’s tenure, the first sexual harassment case and multi-million dollar tobacco suit were successfully settled.

In 1994, DeJean entered the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) program of LASERS. In 1997, after exiting DROP, he “retired” and began to work part-time. On June 28, 2013, he officially retired from the Attorney General’s Office. Work was obviously important to him, and DeJean explained his dedication by saying, “it was the tremendous service provided to locals that couldn’t afford the legal battle.” He attributes his staying power to “just having fun and enjoying working with bright, congenial people.” DeJean laughingly commented that he got along well with everyone, even Attorney General Charles Foti, his fourth boss.

In describing what being a civil servant means, DeJean said, “It’s a sense of doing something that makes a difference in the country, from the little burgs and villages to the Governor and state officials.” He remarked that he had “served the state well under five attorney general administrations.” 

DeJean’s accomplishments include working with the joint Tulane/Loyola Public Law Center. For a number of years, he served as a speaker within the International Legislative Drafting Institute on Sunshine Laws, in particular the Public Records Act, for those training to be legislative drafters across the globe.

After nearly 50 years in the Attorney General’s office, DeJean was asked if he would change anything. He replied with astory. Under Governor Edwards, Charles Roemer was the head of the Division of Administration. At that time, a statewide computer program with contracts for software was being explored by the state. DeJean wrote an opinion approving the contract, but it was changed without his review. When he was called before a Senate Committee to testify, Senator Jackson Beauregard Davis asked him what he would have done differently and DeJean replied, “I would have gone to medical school like my Daddy wanted me to.”

In actuality, DeJean is happy he chose law because he understood the meaning of having a doctor as a father. Absentee parenting goes hand-in-hand with medicine, and spending time with family was a priority for him.

Back to that current business card. DeJean remains passionate about golf, fishing, and cooking. As a professional retiree, he says he “likes it so far.” His plans for the future include spending time at his camp on the Tickfaw, fishing, and cooking up soup, gumbo, and etouffee. And his four children, four grandchildren, and wife Donna will benefit from DeJean’s talents in the kitchen. Donna is an associate professor and director of the Speech and Hearing program at Nicholls State University, so DeJean is often found in Thibodaux enjoying date nights, trying new restaurants, and soaking up retirement.

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