ExposeDat: agreement reached for parish and its president
Sheriff won’t settle – files new attempt to throw case out
A settlement agreement has been reached between the Terrebonne Parish government, Parish President Gordon Dove and ExposeDat website publisher Jennifer Anderson in connection with a suit the Houma woman brought, according to court records.
U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk issued an order Thursday, court records show, dismissing Anderson’s claims against the parish and Dove, noting “Plaintiff and defendants Gordon Dove and Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government, have firmly agreed upon a compromise.”
“The Court retains jurisdiction for all purposes, including enforcing the settlement agreement entered into by the parties,” Africk wrote.
Parish officials refused Friday to discuss the settlement referenced by the judge.
The case was brought in connection with a blog called ExposeDat and a related Facebook page belonging to a fictitious person named John Turner alleging corrupt practices and sweetheart deals by and between various public officials. Insurance broker Tony Alford filed a complaint with the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office alleging the blog and the Facebook page contents constituted criminal defamation under a Louisiana law. A warrant was issued by State District Judge Randall Bethancourt authorizing the seizure of computers and other electronic equipment belonging to a Houma police officer, Wayne Anderson, and his wife, Jennifer. The equipment was seized, and Bethancourt’s warrant was later found unconstitutional by a state appeals court. The Andersons, whose equipment was returned, sued Dove, Sheriff Jerry Larpenter and other defendants in federal court, alleging violation of their civil rights. Wayne Anderson was later let out of the lawsuit as a plaintiff because, court papers state, he had nothing to do with the ExposeDat site or the Facebook page. Jennifer Anderson pressed the claim. Now only Larpenter is left as a defendant. His attorney filed papers seeking a dismissal Friday. Parish Government and Dove had already made their agreement with Anderson.
Her attorney, Jerri Smitko, said she could not discuss any settlement and would not confirm whether one had been reached.
“All I can tell you is it is completely confidential,” Smitko said. “I am not confirming there is a settlement. I can’t give any information.”
The parish denied a public records request Friday seeking a copy of the settlement agreement referenced by the judge, and Dove refused to provide details.
“This is a legal case, and we don’t want to make a comment till we get where everyone wants to be,” Dove said, adding that he will release a statement “hopefully by the beginning of next week.”
Parish Attorney Julius Hebert did not return a phone call made Friday.
Parish council members said they have not been advised of a settlement.
“I sure would like to know how much. I have no knowledge of a settlement,” said Parish Councilman John Navy.
“I didn’t know it got settled,” said Council Chairman Dirk Guidry.
Some parish council members did not appear surprised, however.
On May 10 the council met in secret session – called executive session in government-speak – to discuss the case. Afterward the council voted, according to its minutes, to “concur with the parish attorney regarding the aforementioned lawsuit.” But because that recommendation was made in a closed session, council members contacted said they cannot disclose what it was.
By ordinance the parish president has an automatic blank check up to $50,000 for any purpose. If Dove agreed to a settlement below that amount it is possible the public may never know the precise figure.
State law mandates that an executive session can be held to discuss “current litigation that is on-going and already filed only if the discussion in open meeting will be detrimental to the (public) body’s position in the litigation.”
At this point it is not possible to determine whether that was the case at the May 10 meeting.
Any authorization above the $50,000 limit would have to have been made in open session.
Good government advocates generally frown on public expenditures made without the knowledge of the public except in unusual circumstances.
“Generally speaking it should be public knowledge,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Baton Rouge-based Council For A Better Louisiana. “I know this is highly unusual, a local government agreeing to a settlement in a case should be forthcoming to the public about what the settlement was. At the very least they owe an explanation as to why they are not disclosing it. You can’t just be silent. They have the moral and every other ethical obligation to do that.”
The Parish Council will meet Monday to cover committee business — since each council member sits on each council committee — and it is possible Dove could make an announcement then. He might also make an announcement during the regular Parish Council meeting scheduled for Wednesday. Whether council members will push for an amount to be disclosed in either of those potential instances remains to be seen.
Staff writer Karl Gommel contributed to this report.