OUR VIEW: Lawsuit will result in exposure

During the last half of 2016 a great deal of attention has been paid locally to the rants on a locally-based web site and its related Facebook page, alleging corruption and collusion among government officials including Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove and Sheriff Jerry Larpenter. Tony Alford, President of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District, was included in the criticism because contacts brought into question involved his insurance company. Alford is a long-time business associate of Dove’s, is a friend of the Larpenter family, and the sheriff’s wife, Priscilla, is employed by a division of his firm.

Opinions from the Louisiana Ethics Board and the Attorney General addressed some of the issues the blog ExposeDat brought to public attention, and found no wrong-doing by the officials who were mentioned.

The Terrebonne Parish Council wrote what might have been the closing chapter to this saga, by approving Alford as the insurance agent of record for the parish, as part of a deal which officials maintain will save money not only for the parish but for its employees.

But that ended up not being the case.

During the last few days of 2016 a lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court was amended, and the saga continues, at least until a federal judge decides he has heard enough and shuts it down, or until parties involved settle, or until a jury makes a decision on the facts alleged one way or another.

The suit was brought by Wayne Anderson and his wife, Jennifer Anderson, who at an earlier time was known as Jennifer Goulas. It alleges that Dove, Larpenter and Alford conspired together to violate the couple of their civil rights.

A moment must be taken to explore the fact-set that results in these allegations.

As a result of the blog, Alford made a complaint to the sheriff, alleging that he was victimized by a violation of Louisiana’s defamation statute, making it a crime to hold a person up to ridicule or lie about them, except if that person is a public official, or at least in most cases. The criminal case was halted in its tracks. A warrant used to seize computers belonging to the Andersons was declared void by the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals. The computers – along with some cell phones – were returned.

That the Andersons might seek redress from the sheriff in the federal courts is not surprising. Civil rights lawsuits have been brought on far flimsier foundations and allegations. Just as they have a right to be secure in their homes and persons from unreasonable search and seizure, the Andersons have a right to bring court action alleging that said right was breached.

The question of whether and how the sheriff violated those rights must be answered by the court, ultimately. There is a difference between a law enforcement official acting out of pique and a violation of constitutional rights, and the law demands evidence beyond a show of heavy-handedness for a plaintiff in such a case to prevail.

Perhaps, by bringing in the parish president and the levee board into the litigation, the Andersons are acting under a belief that the move will bolster the claim. A strong argument can be voiced from the sidelines, however, that this development ultimately will serve to obfuscate the underlying issue rather than clarify it. Unfortunate in this regard is that the levee district, because of what observers could argue is a pedestrian involvement, must now use precious funds that should be spent on defending our coast from the ravages of winds, storms and rising tides, defending against this lawsuit. The sole reason for including the levee district, a close reading of the court papers makes clear, would be to keep Alford as a defendant in a type of suit normally brought for violations that can only be committed by government or its agents.

As this suit proceeds through the courts the legal process will require examinations of all parties under oath. Ultimately, that means that the true motivation and identities of persons behind the ExposeDat site – and therefore the chain of events resulting from it – will be determined beyond any reasonable doubt. •