What at first appeared to be a slam-dunk sexual harassment case against former commissioner of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) Murphy J. Painter is beginning to look more and more like reprisals on the part of Gov. Bobby Jindal because of Painter’s refusal to acquiesce to administration demands involving several major Jindal campaign contributors.
It wouldn’t be the first time Jindal has fired a subordinate or demoted a legislator because he or she had the temerity to disagree with him, of course. But it would be the first time such tactics were employed in conjunction with criminal charges.
Painter was indicted—somewhat belatedly—on 42 separate counts of computer fraud in connection with his conducting criminal records, background and driver’s license checks on 35 individuals over a three-year period but never on the sexual harassment claims. Nor was he ever indicted on charges that he stalked or conducted surveillance on individuals—even though that claim was given widespread publicity by State Inspector General Stephen Street on May 28, 2012, the day Painter was formally indicted.
That indictment, coincidentally, came down only days after the legislature voted to strip Street’s office of all appropriations for the current fiscal year. Funding for his office was restored only after Street testified before legislators and repeated details of his office’s investigation of Painter as justification of continued funding, Painter says in his motion to dismiss the charges against him.
Painter’s trial on the federal charges is scheduled to begin on April 22. Meanwhile, he has separate civil suits pending against the state and against the woman who accused him of sexual harassment—after she told an OIG investigator that Painter had never harassed her.
We’ll return to the allegations, denials and counter-accusations in due course, but the real issues swirling around Painter appear to be rooted deep in Louisiana politics and back door deals as only a saga of Louisiana political intrigue and corruption can be told.
It was in late summer of 2010 when a series of events in New Orleans and Baton Rouge—unrelated to sexual harassment, computer fraud or surveillance—would culminate in a meeting in the governor’s office which would end Painter’s 34-year career in law enforcement, 14 of which he served as chief criminal deputy under former Ascension Parish Sheriff Harold Tridico.
After losing the 1995 sheriff’s race to current Sheriff Jeff Wiley by fewer than 700 votes, Painter was appointed ATC commissioner by then-Gov. Mike Foster in February of 1996.
New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson had purchased the 26-story building once known as Dominion Tower, or CNG Tower, a year earlier in September of 2009. The building is located across the street from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. As part of the deal struck between Benson and the state to keep the Saints from moving to San Antonio, the Jindal administration agreed to a 20-year lease of some 325,000 square feet of office space at $24 a square foot for various state agencies, some of whom were paying as little as $12 a square foot before being forced to move to Benson Tower.
At the outset, the state’s obligation was about $7.7 million a year, $2.6 million more than the $5.1 million the state was paying before the move.
Included in the Benson Tower purchase was a 60,000-square-foot plot encompassing a one-block section of LaSalle Street and part of what once was the New Orleans Centre shopping mall.
Champions Square opened on Aug. 21, 2010, with the Saints hosting a pre-season game against the Houston Texans. The facility provided a tailgate party atmosphere and gave up to 8,000 Saints fans who did not have tickets a place to hang out and party while cheering on the Saints.
Champions Square soon became the catalyst in the struggle that would erupt between Painter’s office, the governor’s office and Mercedes-Benz Superdome management firm SMG (formerly Spectacor Management Group). On the fringes of this growing dispute were parties who had more than a passing interest: Benson, the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED), Anheuser-Busch, brewers of Budweiser Beer, and local Anheuser-Busch distributor Southern Eagle Sales & Service.
LSED is a state political subdivision created to oversee operations of the Superdome, the John A. Alario Sr. Event Center, the New Orleans Arena, the Saints training facility, TPC Louisiana, and Zephyr Field, home of the Triple-A baseball team.
Benson, the seven LSED members (each of whom is appointed by the governor) and their families, businesses and business associates, SMG and Southern Eagle combined to contribute more than $203,000 to Jindal campaigns between 2003 and 2012.
In a lawsuit filed against Jindal, the State of Louisiana, the Department of Revenue and Taxation, its former secretary, Cynthia Bridges and Inspector General Street, Painter says that in May of 2010, some three months before Champions Square was officially opened, he met with representatives of SMG and its lobbyist about SMG’s request for a license to serve alcohol in Champions Square on Saints game days.
Budweiser and Southern Eagle stood to be the big winners if the license application was approved.
Painter says in his lawsuit that he informed SMG of several regulatory violations in its proposal and offered suggestions on bringing the proposal into compliance with state laws. SMG’s subsequent license proposal, however, failed to address a number of the problems Painter had outlined in their previous meeting.
When Painter rejected the proposal, SMG arranged a meeting between Painter and SMG attorney, Robert Walmsley, Jr., Painter says in his petition.
Walmsley is a member of the law firm Fishman, Haygood, Phelps, Walmsley, Willis & Swanson of New Orleans which also contributed $5,000 to Jindal’s campaign in October of 2008.
Walmsley, after meeting with Painter, agreed to provide “a written legal opinion to the ATC documenting how SMG’s proposal complied with, or was otherwise exempt from, Louisiana law,” the petition says.
That promised opinion was never provided to ATC, Painter or his counsel, according to the suit.
Within a matter of weeks, Painter was contacted by Jindal executive Counsel Stephen Waguespack, nephew of Ascension Parish Sheriff Wiley. Waguespack asked Painter to cooperate with SMG and to stop using ATC’s legal counsel to address concerns with the Champions Square project being pushed by SMG, Painter says in his petition.
Subsequent to that call, Walmsley sent Painter an email in which he outlined a purported rationale that would allow SMG to qualify for the sought after license but the email, Painter says, did not include Walmsley’s promised written legal opinion. The ATC legal counsel again advised that the SMG proposal did not satisfy legal requirements.
Painter advised Walmsley that the license would not be issued because SMG did not qualify for the proposed exception as had been suggested. Painter also advised SMG “that alternative legal means would be utilized to address any issues related to the forthcoming grand opening of Champions Square if a resolution was not reached,” according to the lawsuit.
Then, on Aug. 11, Waguespack again called Painter and advised that he, as executive counsel for the governor’s office, “saw no problem with issuing the requested license to SMG,” whereupon Painter said he would defer to Waguespack—if Waguespack was willing to issue a legal opinion in writing to the ATC as representing the governor’s position.
“The governor’s executive counsel refused and suggested that issuing such an opinion was not a good use of his time and/or position,” Painter says, adding that he understood from that conversation that he “was being ordered to issue the license requested by SMG in direct contravention of law.”
In more than 15 years as ATC commissioner, Painter said he had never received such a call from the governor’s office.
Painter and ATC again refused to issue the requested license and two days later, on Aug. 13, Painter was summoned to the governor’s office on the fourth floor of the State Capitol where he met with Waguespack, Louisiana State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson and another member of the governor’s legal staff.
Painter was advised that an unidentified law enforcement agency (later identified as OIG) was investigating him for alleged criminal violations, specifically sexual harassment, and that Jindal was asking for his resignation.
Painter said he asked if Jindal was asking for his resignation because it was his prerogative to do so or because of the criminal investigation and when informed it was because of the investigation, he refused to resign and was fired.
Despite, the manner in which his dismissal came about, it was subsequently reported to the media that he had resigned.
In what Painter described as another means of garnering publicity, an OIG investigator obtained a search warrant to search Painter’s office at ATC even though a previous investigation by the Department of Revenue had already cleared Painter of any wrongdoing.
The administration, through OIG, zeroed in on the sexual harassment charges for Painter’s former administrative assistant Kelli Suire. Suire did contact local news media in July of 2010 with claims of sexual harassment by Painter and on Aug. 6, an email purportedly sent from firstname.lastname@example.org to several media outlets outlined several complaints about Painter and ATC, including the alleged sexual harassment of Suire and that Painter stalked Suire by going to her home on several occasions. The email, Painter learned from his own investigation, originated from the Louisiana State Library near the State Capitol.
Painter also claims that Suire and ATC Deputy Commissioner Brant Thompson were cooperating with each other in efforts to undermine Painter’s authority.
Painter says he took his concerns to Thompson’s father, State Sen. Francis Thompson (D-Delhi) on Aug. 12 and the elder Thompson offered assurances that his son would cooperate with Painter in the future.
Painter then asked that Brant Thompson report to his office no later than Monday, Aug. 16, “to discuss his conduct and accept a suspension from his job duties.”
That meeting never occurred because Painter was fired the following day and Brant Thompson was appointed interim commissioner until the appointment of current commissioner Troy Hebert.
Almost a year before Painter’s dismissal, on October 16, 2009, Suire resigned her position at ATC. But three days later, on Oct. 19, Painter, on ATC business in Washington, D.C., received a call from his office informing him that Suire had been in his office for several hours that morning copying files, Painter says in a separate defamation lawsuit against Suire.
That suit was filed in 23rd Judicial District Court in Ascension Parish while his lawsuit against the state for wrongful firing was filed in 19th JDC in Baton Rouge. And while considerable coverage was given his firing and the subsequent charges of sexual harassment, minimal coverage has been given his lawsuits by Baton Rouge area media outlets.
Sometime following his Aug. 13 firing in 2010, Painter learned of a letter dated 11 days earlier, on Aug. 2, to LDR Deputy secretary Earl Millet, Jr. from Barry Kelly, assistant director of Revenue’s Criminal Investigations Division in which Kelly gave the results of his investigation of six accusations against Painter, including sexual harassment and stalking of Suire.
In that letter, Kelly said, an attorney was hired to conduct an investigation into the allegations and when questioned, “Ms. Suire admitted that there was no sexual harassment.”
Prior to that Aug. 2 letter, on March 29, the Department of revenue sent a letter to Suire reporting its findings. That letter said, in part, “The investigator met with yourself, Painter and other ATC employees. Based upon the information gathered during the investigation, LDR has determined Painter’s actions did not violate the LDR’s Anti-Harassment Policy…
“The finding is based upon information secured during your interview wherein you indicated Painter did not make unwelcome sexual advances toward you. You also indicated Painter did not request sexual favors or engage in verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature to you. Additionally, you also stated that your complaint against Painter was not one of sexual harassment.”
Despite that admission, the governor’s office, through OIG, proceeded with its investigation, accusing Painter of accessing the criminal records database 314 times in more than five years between February 25, 2005, and Aug. 13, 2010. Subsequent information obtained by Painter through legal discovery revealed that OIG received 1,063 complaints between June 20, 2009 and June 15, 2011 and determined that not all the complaints constituted a need for a law enforcement data base check.
Yet, during that same two-year period, three OIG investigators combined to access the criminal records database nearly 3,000 times—one of those more than 2,100 times.
Painter’s trial in federal district court in Baton Rouge on the computer fraud charges is scheduled for April 22.
And yet, despite the charges alluded to by Waguespack when he fired Painter, he has never been formally charged with sexual harassment, stalking or surveillance.
And charges of accessing the criminal records data bank 314 times over a period of more than five years—approximately five times per month—to most people would not appear excessive for the head of a law enforcement agency whose job it is to track criminal activity.
…Unless someone was looking for a reason to fire an uncooperative subordinate standing in the way of political expedience and opportunity—and inconveniencing campaign contributors.