A joint investigation by LouisianaVoice and Fox8 News has revealed that a federal investigation has been launched into allegations that former Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control director Troy Hebert used his position to extort sex from a woman who experienced problems with ATC over a liquor license for her New Orleans restaurant.
New Orleans businessman Amer Bader, who initially told LouisianaVoice he had been visited by the FBI, told a former ATC agent he exchanged text messages with Hebert. In those texts, he accused Hebert of extorting sexual favors from a woman friend of Bader’s who was experiencing problems in licensing her restaurant with ATC. He later said it was not he who was visited by federal agents, but his friend who runs the Star Steak House on Decatur Street.
The restaurant, according to the former agent, was delinquent in paying its taxes and its license expired on May 31, 2015. Following an appearance at ATC in Baton Rouge, Hebert allegedly contacted her and offered to help, according to the source who voluntarily came forward. The two began meeting for dinner, the anonymous source told LouisianaVoice via email on Dec. 18. She said Hebert eventually took the woman to an apartment he keeps above the Copper Monkey Grill at 725 Conti St. in New Orleans where they engaged in sex.
She said the woman, whom she identified as Sarah Palmer, took photos of the interior of the apartment on her cell phone and that she also saved text messages from Hebert despite his admonition to delete the photos and texts. Those photos and text messages were eventually turned over to the FBI, the source said.
Hebert, in response to Bader’s text messages, reportedly claimed that he did not seduce the woman but that she seduced him.
LouisianaVoice reached Hebert by phone late Tuesday and asked for a statement. Hebert requested that we put any questions in writing and email them to him, so we did:
- Did you in fact offer to help (Sarah Palmer) with her licensing?
- Did you offer to help her financially with paying for her children’s school?
- Did you issue temporary permits so she could continue to sell alcohol?
- Does the director of ATC have authority to issue temporary permits in cases of delinquent sales tax remittances?
- Did you dismiss the case against her? If so, why?
- Did you have sex with Sarah Palmer?
- Did you exchange emails with Amer Bader regarding your relationship with Sarah Palmer?
- Who provided legal representation for restaurant and bar owners before the ATC when you were director?
Hebert offered this written statement by email:
“Like Paul Harvey use to say, this is ‘the rest of the story.’
“Star Steak House in the French Quarter was facing suspension/revocation of their alcohol permit because Ms. Palmer’s Middle Eastern manager, who is a convicted felon, was breaking the law and pocketing thousands of state sales tax dollars from the business.
“At the ATC hearing, Ms. Palmer stated that she was committed to keeping her business open legally and her 20-plus employees working. She was advised that she would have to remove her manager from any and all dealings with the business and work out a payment plan with the Department of Revenue (LDR) to pay all taxes owed the state.
“She was granted a temporary permit to give her and LDR time to work out a payment plan in which they did. It is customary to grant several 35-day temporary permits rather than permanent ones to ensure that all details have been worked out. Ms. Palmer was asked on several occasions to finalize the proper paper work to resolve this issue completely, which she did not. At that point and time, no more permits were issued and ATC learned the business had actually closed. Because you cannot collect from a business that no longer exists, the charges were dropped.
“At no point and time did I or ATC do anything illegal or unethical and the records and policy clearly reflect that. It is standard procedure to try and allow a business to remain open, if possible, in order for the state to collect the taxes owed as well as save innocent people’s jobs. ‘You can’t get blood out of a turnip.’ To try and suggest otherwise is simply a ploy to discredit me and a great agency for doing our job dealing with those who don’t do theirs.
“During the course of this time, Ms. Palmer’s manager, whom I suggested that she fire, began threatening me. Due to the numerous other threats and the torching of my car, I reached out to the FBI for help and protection of my family and I (sic).
“Your sources that say the FBI is investigating me must have their wires crossed. Why would the FBI investigate me for doing my job and was threatened for doing so? Common sense says that if there is an investigation, it is about the people who threatened my life and family for fighting for the good law-abiding taxpayers of our state.
“I love my wife and children with all my heart and would never do anything to jeopardize that or put them in harm’s way.
“As a respected public servant for 25 years and now a private citizen, any malice, defamation, suggestions or slander from your reporting against my character that will cause irreparable harm to me personally, professionally or politically will be dealt with in the court of law. I do not mean to come across disrespectful, but sometimes you cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
He also included a copy of a Nov. 19, 2015, letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in which he claimed he and his family had been threatened. In his letter, he said FBI offices in New Orleans and Baton Rouge had declined to assist him.
Hebert also forwarded an email from Palmer to him dated Oct. 13, 2015 which said, “I am proposing the following terms in order to satisfy my tax issues with the state.
- 10 percent down on the balance that I currently owe;
- Remaining money owed would be paid over a course of 12 months as long as I stay current on the money due each and every month.”
That email, however, was not part of the file on the restaurant obtained from ATC by LouisianaVoice, an indication it was a private communication between Palmer and Hebert and outside official channels.
In a separate email to WVUE-TV, he also said, “Is it your station’s policy to report such damaging allegations against someone’s reputation from only a source and not an actual confirmation from the FBI?”
The FBI, of course, neither confirms nor denies the existence of criminal investigations.
LouisianaVoice obtained public records from ATC which show that Hebert issued a “Commissioner’s Findings and Order” on Sept. 9 in which he suspended the woman’s license upon finding there was “sufficient evidence to support a finding that the permittee (Louisiana Oyster House, dba as Star Steak and Lobster at 237 Decatur Street) did violate the provisions” of:
- LA. R.S. 26:75/26:295 (proper permit not held, first offense) and
- LA R.S. 26:91B/16:287B (failure to pay state sales tax, first offense).
(CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE)
The confidential source, who has requested anonymity, said the day following the hearing attended by Palmer, she received a call from Hebert “offering to help her get her license back.”
In a Dec. 18 email to LouisianaVoice, the source said, “He wanted to meet her for a drink to discuss it. She met with him and he told her he would reinstate her license if she would go out with him. She agreed and went to dinner with him at a local restaurant. He was accompanied by two of his bodyguards (ATC agents) who remained outside the restaurant while he dined with her. He even took her to his French Quarter apartment on top of the Copper Monkey Bar on Conti St. He revoked the suspension of her license the next day, and did not make her pay the fine. He continued to go out with her and have sex with her,” she wrote.
She said that Palmer “has evidence of her relations with him consisting of pictures and text messages. She has kept quiet until now for fear that he will retaliate against her business.”
The following day, Dec. 19, she sent another email in which she reiterated her claim that Palmer possessed photos of Hebert’s apartment on her cell phone. “He has also sent her numerous text messages from his state-issued cell phone telling her how much he wants to see her. Two weeks ago, he called her and said be sure to erase the text messages but she didn’t because she did not trust him. He even told her that he was going to help her with some money for her kids’ schools. She also has not had to pay the fines. He keeps pushing them back. She believes they will disappear before the new commissioner takes office.”
A temporary permit was in fact issued on Sept. 11, according to records obtained from ATC offices in Baton Rouge. Subsequent temporary permits were issued on Oct. 15 and Nov. 20. Each permit was marked “Valid for 35 days only.”
And while each of the temporary permits bore the name and title of ATC Commissioner Hebert, the person who signed each of them was Judy Pontin, executive management officer for ATC’s New Orleans office.
Pontin is the sister of Chris Young, a New Orleans attorney who represents bar and restaurant owners before ATC and who is a lobbyist for the Beer Industry League of Louisiana. Another brother is John Young, former Jefferson Parish President and unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in last fall’s statewide election. Pontin was hired by Hebert on Nov. 4, 2013 at a salary of $71,000.
On Jan. 6, just four days before he left office, Hebert issued a second “Commissioner’s Findings and Order” on the restaurant but this time he wrote, “After reviewing the evidence and all relevant testimony, the Commissioner finds the following:
“There is not sufficient evidence (emphasis ours) to support the finding that the permittee did violate the provisions of:
“It is hereby ordered that this matter be dismissed,” he wrote as one of, if not the final act in his capacity as ATC commissioner.
There followed on last Wednesday (Jan. 20), a flurry of several quick emails pertaining to the application process for renewal of the restaurant’s license, a development that does not square with Hebert’s claim that the restaurant had closed. The first, at 9:52 a.m., was a forward from ATC attorney Linda Pham to fellow attorney Jacqueline Wilson of an earlier (8:18 a.m.) message from a Lorie Hebert and given “high importance,” which said, “I received a phone message from an atty. David Corkern about this mandatory case set for today at 2:30 p.m.” The reference was to the license for Star Restaurant and Corkern was the attorney for manager Sarah Palmer.
At 9:31 a.m., Pontin forwarded a pdf attachment to Wilson and at 10:04 a.m., Pontin sent an email to Palmer saying, “Please see attached the 2015 renewal application we discussed as per or (sic) phone conversation. If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to call. That was likely the same attachment that Pontin had sent to Wilson at 10:04 a.m.
The anonymous source, who has sent 11 separate emails to date, said she had seen text messages from Hebert to Palmer and “there are witnesses who followed their dinners.”
Seven of her emails were sent between Dec. 18 and Dec. 27. Then her messages went dark before suddenly resuming on Saturday (Jan 23). “I have stayed clear because FBI is now actively involved,” she said on Saturday by way of explaining why her communications ceased for nearly a month. “They have made contact with Palmer and have seized photos, emails and text messages,” she said.
“The FBI now has evidence but is expanding (its) investigation further,” she said. “The investigation (is) going in this direction: Hebert makes trouble for a business. Then his number-one assistant Judy (Pontin), maiden name Young, sister to (attorney) Chris Young, sends word to (the) targeted business to hire Chris Young and pay big fees to get them off Hebert’s radar. Once Young is hired (and the) fee paid, problem disappears. Once (the) deal is done, Chris Young calls his sister Judy in Hebert’s office and the coverup begins.”
Asked how she knew Palmer, she said simply, “She is a girlfriend of mine.”
Tomorrow: LouisianaVoice examines political contributions by New Orleans strip clubs which were passed over in ATC’s “Operation Trick or Treat” sweep of the French Quarter in October.