Apparently Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter has never read the First Amendment. Neither, apparently, has 32nd Judicial District Court Judge Randal Bethancourt. Nor does it seem that either has ever checked into the constitutional status of Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute.
Larpenter made national news last Tuesday (August 2) when he sent a posse of six deputies to the home of a suspected blogger and hauled away two laptop computers because the blogger said bad things about the high sheriff. Somehow, six men to confiscate two laptop computers approaches overkill, but perhaps that’s the way things are done in Terrebonne Parish. After all, the laws that apply to the rest of us don’t seem to hold much water with Larpenter and Bethancourt. https://theintercept.com/2016/08/04/sheriff-raids-house-to-find-anonymous-blogger-who-called-him-corrupt/
The blogger, after all, had said some really bad things about Larpenter and Parish President (and former State Rep.) Gordon Dove and Dove’s business partner Tony Alford, who landed a huge benefits package brokerage contract for Larpenter’s office, and their jointly-owned trucking firm, and Dove’s former legislative assistant Debbie Ortego who was given a $79,000-a-year job as Dove’s new officer manager, and Debbie’s husband Dana who is Dove’s Risk Manager, and Dana’s nephew Parish Attorney Joe Waitz, III, District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr.’s son, and Sheriff Larpenter’s wife Priscilla who has a six-figure job as manager of Tony Alford’s office, and Jackie Dove who is married to Assistant District Attorney Sye Broussard. There were a few other names in the organizational flow chart compiled by the publisher of the Internet blog http://exposedat.in/wp/ but it gets complicated and somewhat confusing after that.
But the gist of the story is that certain connected entities have successfully evaded their responsibility to pay nearly $400,000 in parish taxes, malfeasance on the part of local officials for not pursuing the collection of the delinquent taxes with, in the words of the late John F. Kennedy, “great vigor,” nepotism, ethics violations, and violations of environmental regulations.
To give you a bit of background, LouisianaVoice had a post two years ago about Dove and his trucking company which got into trouble with the environmental watchdogs in Montana who, unlike their counterparts in Louisiana, tend to do their jobs with no consideration given to oil company political contributions and highly paid oil and gas lobbyists milling around the State Capitol’s rotunda with steak restaurant vouchers for famished legislators. https://louisianavoice.com/2014/06/01/gordon-dove-fox-in-the-house-natural-resources-committee-henhouse-or-perhaps-its-just-louisiana-jindaltics-as-usual/
As we read through the mystery blogger’s most recent post about Terrebonne Parish (the one that got him into trouble with Larpenter and Judge Bethancourt), we couldn’t help but be impressed with the detailed thoroughness with which he laid out his case, supported by document after document.
He had documents and links to documents to support every claim in his post and yet all that made no difference to the two officials who went after the presumed publisher of the blog, one Wayne Anderson who just happens to be a police officer for the City of Houma and who formerly worked as a Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s deputy.
Despite his denials that he is the owner of the blog, he was placed on paid leave a little more than an hour after the raid.
Regardless whether or not Anderson is being truthful in denying authorship of the blog, the entire thing should be a moot point. The blogger, Anderson or whomever, has a right to free speech guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. It’s not that there hasn’t been an effort to thwart freedom of speech. Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute comes immediately to mind.
That law was passed way back in the beginning of John McKeithen’s last term as governor. It was also the start of the final four-year term for Attorney General P.F. “Jack” Gremillion of whom former Gov. Earl Long once said, “If you want to hide something from Jack Gremillion, put it in a law book.”
Bethancourt said he had to stay within the “four corners” of the warrant and affidavit (whatever that means) and that he was unable to discern if Alford was a public official (under the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Sullivan v. New York Times which ruled that for a public official to claim libel, he must prove not only malicious intent but “reckless disregard for the truth”)—despite Alford’s status as a member of a local levee district. Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute, he said, is “pretty broad” and that he would the state to have a “look-see” at what was contained on the computers that might have defamatory statements on them.
The only problem with the judge’s interpretation of the state’s “pretty broad” defamation statute is that it is non-existent.
David Ardoin, Anderson’s attorney, correctly pointed out that Bethancourt made a mistake in approving the warrant to raid his client’s home because in 1981, the second year of former Gov. Dave Treen’s term of office, the law was declared unconstitutional. http://www.lsli.org/files/unconst_report2016.pdf
Just to put things in their proper perspective, that was 35 years ago. Way to stay current on the law, Judge. And Judge, one more thing: since the law was held unconstitutional, it would seem that neither your nor the sheriff—nor anyone else, for that matter—has any right to have a “look-see” at what is contained on Anderson’s computers. That, yer honor, is invasion of privacy.
I happened to run into former Gov. Edwin Edwards last Friday when we each were guests on different hourly segments of the Jim Engster Show in Baton Rouge. I asked him if he remembered the defamation law and he immediately responded, “Of course. It was later declared unconstitutional.” A pretty sharp mind for a man who turned 89 on Sunday (August 7).
When I explained what had occurred in Terrebonne Parish, he said, “It sounds to me like the sheriff has some very serious legal problems. I would love to be that blogger’s attorney in that civil litigation.”
Sheriff Larpenter and Judge Bethancourt have greatly overstepped their authority and their responsibility to the citizens of Terrebonne Parish. So much so that the local newspaper, the Houma Daily Courier, took a big risk in alienating the local power structure when it took the sheriff to task in a sharply worded EDITORIAL on Sunday (Aug. 7). The paper, however, stopped short of condemning Judge Bethancourt for going along with the sheriff’s Gestapo-like tactics.
Just a cursory read of ExposeDat makes it abundantly and undeniably clear that there are some cozy—too cozy—relationships that border on political incest in Terrebonne Parish. Too much authority and power is vested in the hands of too few people to allow for a workable system of checks and balances. Those few control how millions upon millions of public dollars are spent. Whenever that occurs, there is no oversight and invariably, greed becomes the motivating factor that drives virtually every action.
And it is the citizens who are the ultimate losers.
Local media are subject to economic realities, they can be—and are—squeezed by those in power so that any real investigative reporting is tempered by whatever financial pressure (read: advertising revenue) can be applied by those with the most to lose.
Because of that, bloggers like ExposeDat who are not beholden to the Chamber of Commerce or the local banks are more important than ever before.
Whenever a blogger draws the ire of a public official or is referred to as a “chronic complainer (as in the case of LouisianaVoice recently), it only means that blogger has struck a nerve. Whenever someone says “They’re just a blogger” like a State Trooper ally of State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson recently said in an attempt to discredit LouisianaVoice, we just smile and say, “Yep. We are ‘just a blogger’ who exposed an attempt by Edmonson to enrich his retirement benefits by about $30,000 a year—illegally, we might add—and stopped that little scheme in its tracks.
To ExposeDat, we strongly urge the publisher, whoever you are, to keep the heat on. You’ve already done the heavy lifting and we support your lonely vigil. Don’t relent. If you know you’re doing the right thing, then follow the advice of Winston Churchill: “Never give up. Never, Never, Never.”