HideDat: Parish tries to seal ExposeDat settlement, judge refuses

Earlynn Olden
June 14, 2017
Tommy Bergeron
June 15, 2017
Earlynn Olden
June 14, 2017
Tommy Bergeron
June 15, 2017

Attorneys for the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government have attempted to have a federal judge seal any information about the settlement they made with ExposeDat blogger Jennifer Anderson to end her civil rights lawsuit, and specifically sought to have the judge over-ride the Louisiana Public Records Act to keep the matter secret.

But U.S. District Judge Lance Africk denied that request, leaving the door open for release of the information.

Parish President Gordon Dove, however, refused to speak about the case settlement.

Only one defendant is left in the case brought by Anderson arising from the seizure of computer equipment including cell phones seized during an aborted investigation into a complaint that the blog and a related Facebook page under the fictitious name “John Turner” – which court records subsequently indicated was written by Anderson under her own admission – violated Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute. The site alleged corruption and collusion between Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter, Houma insurance broker Tony Alford, who maintains insurance for Larpenter’s agency and with whom the sheriff’s wife has a business relationship, as well as Dove and therefore the parish government, as well as Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. State District Judge Randy Bethancourt signed a search warrant which authorized the seizure, and later refused to overturn the warrant. The Louisiana First Ciruit Court of Appeal, however, did overturn the warrant, declaring it unconstitutional, and the equipment was returned. Anderson’s husband, Houma Police Officer Wayne Anderson, was originally a plaintiff in the case then withdrew. No criminal charge was ever brought against either of the Andersons.

Larpenter is the only defendant left, and his attorney, Bill Dodd, recently filed documents indicating that he is continuing to fight the suit, which states that seizure violated Jennifer Anderson’s civil rights. Larpenter’s disclosure while being interviewed by HTV television personality Martin Folse on the Bayou Time television program of her felony record in connection with a federal criminal case years ago, the suit alleges, was also a civil rights violation.

A process begun in May, when the judge granted a dismissal of claims against Dove and the parish government, came to an end Tuesday, when Judge Africk signed a final dismissal “with prejudice,” meaning Anderson cannot bring the matter to court again.

Tuesday was also the day that Africk denied the request by all parties to seal the case, which would have prevented them from discussing the amount settled upon or other terms of the settlement agreement.

The requested order also would have applied “to any public records request made upon the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government, absent an order from this court.”

The Times has standing public records requests for the settlement agreement and for any record of payment made to Anderson or her attorney, which have already been denied by the parish.

After Wednesday night’s Parish Council meeting a Times reporter asked Dover for the settlement amount.

“No comment,” Dove replied, then walked away. Asked if there was a reason why he refused, Dove again said “no comment.” Asked if he was going to answer any question regarding the settlement, Dove said “nope.”

Matters relevant to the case were discussed in an executive session May 10, but the only action announced afterward was that the council members agreed to follow the recommendations of the administration.

Last week Assistant District Attorney Jason Dagate, at the request of The Times, discussed the settlement with Hebert, who said he was not disclosing information because it was still an open matter under scrutiny of the judge, and that his staff was preparing motions relevant to the case.

He did not disclose that one of those motions was the one seeking to shut down information – which the judge denied.

“It’s a concern that the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government is so interested in keeping the amount it paid a secret, especially when a lawsuit concerns something as serious as constitutional violations,” said Scott Sternberg, a New Orleans attorney who advises the Louisiana Press Association and its member newspapers. “The fact that the government doesn’t want the public to know how much they settled the case for is clearly a matter of public record. That is why the public records law exists.”

In the past the parish has denied requests for the settlement agreement citing what it said were privacy concerns as well as work still being done to bring it to a close. Prior settlements of lawsuits have always been disclosed to the public.

Staff Writer Karl Gommel contriburted to this report

Gordon Dove