Marshal Pope’s fate in jury’s hands

Disgraced Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope outside of the Lafayette Parish Courthouse in August 2018 Robin May

“Uphold the oath. Hold Marshal Pope accountable.”

Assistant District Attorney Alan Haney repeated those words ad nauseam in the Lafayette Parish Courthouse Wednesday.

“Every public official takes an oath,” to support the constitution and laws of the state and impartially discharge official duties, Haney said. “This case is about deciding if it means anything.”

The irony here is that Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope could have easily avoided this courtroom.

Had the marshal simply turned over public records requested by The Independent in late 2015, he’d likely have faced an ethics complaint at worst. Instead, Pope went to great measures to hide records related to a bizarre press conference held at his office on Oct. 7, 2015. Not only did he refuse to turn over the records, citing an exemption in the state’s public records law for records in an open investigation, but he also went so far as to delete from his computer all evidence tying him to the person who orchestrated the entire press event: Joe Castille.

Castille, who at the time was a campaign consultant for Chad Leger, the Scott police chief challenging Mark Garber for sheriff, wrote every single word for every single piece of press material for that press conference, including the media advisory, press release, a statement Pope stumbled through verbatim, and talking points for a post-conference radio interview. At the same time Castille was working on those materials, he was also drafting the language for Pope’s endorsement of Leger, with whom Pope has shared a decades-long friendship. The Independent was able to obtain the deleted emails through a parallel public records request to Lafayette Consolidated Government, the marshal’s email service provider.

Flanked by four of his deputies who were on the clock at the time, Pope read off Castille’s statement, which repeatedly attacked then-candidate Garber throughout the press conference, warning voters that Garber would go easy on undocumented immigrants, then a hot-button issue in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Castille billed the event as a press conference about the sheriff’s election and immigration.

A jury of Marshal Pope’s peers must now decide whether that press conference was about crimes committed by illegal immigrants or simply a stunt on the public dime to smear Garber and help Pope’s friend. Pope is on trial for seven felony counts stemming from revelations in the public records lawsuit; the judge in that civil case didn’t buy Pope’s “ongoing investigation” argument after he failed to show any evidence of an investigation.

The jury heard testimony in the case for the past week and began deliberations around 3:30 Wednesday afternoon.

In fact, it was the judge in that civil case who first raised the specter of criminal prosecution. “The events that gave rise to this litigation may serve as ground to investigate Marshal Pope for various crimes such as perjury, malfeasance, and others,” 15th Judicial District Judge Jules Edwards said in March 2016 after finding the marshal guilty of criminal contempt of court for defying a court order to turn the records over. “This court specifically did not and could not consider those questions because the marshal has not been formally charged with those offenses.”

The bulk of the charges against Pope are directly related to his actions during that public records case. He is accused of two counts of perjury, one for repeatedly denying that he authorized the distribution of emails for the press conference via a third-party mass distribution service used by Castille. Castille, who is currently a close adviser to Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, testified last week that he instructed Pope on how to authorize him to use Pope’s email address to send out the press advisory. Pope’s lawyer, John McLindon, suggested in closing arguments Pope may have mistakenly clicked the authorization link the service, used by Castille, sent to Pope, equating such action to a “butt dial,” which later drew a strong rebuke from Haney.

Pope in fact denied any knowledge of the third-party distribution service, contradicting a statement his attorney, Chuck Middleton, sent to The Independent in October 2015 saying his client told him the only responsive documents are “email replies he received in reply to the subject ‘press conference notice’ he had sent out via mass distribution via third party vendor across the country.” The mailing vendor in question here is a service called Campaigner.

The other count of perjury relates to Pope’s claim that Castille only wrote the press release but provided no other services for the press conference. After repeated questioning in a video deposition, Pope continued to deny Castille’s role and eventually admitted to other services, while sticking to his story that someone on his staff wrote the media advisory. Email records prove it was Castille who wrote it, and Castille testified to as much at trial.

It was the video deposition — which was played in its near three-hour entirety for the jury and again in snippets by the prosecution in closing — that proved to be the star witness in the case. The video revealed a bumbling city marshal squirming under pressure when presented with the email evidence he had deleted. The video was the basis for the DA’s narrative that the press conference was a political stunt to help elect Chad Leger, and the jurors appeared to be transfixed on it.

In the end, Marshal Pope did not take the stand. Haney didn’t need him to.  

In his opening arguments, Haney urged jurors to watch Pope’s body language and in closing returned to the message. “I wanted you to have two hours and 40 minutes to get to know Brian Pope,” Haney told jurors.

In the end, Marshal Pope did not take the stand. Haney didn’t need him to.  

One of the malfeasance charges alleges Pope broke the law by using workers at his office for his re-election campaign (“I’m a political figure, I can use my office for my campaign,” Pope said in the deposition), the resources of his office for political purposes, and paid a lawyer with public funds to draft a motion to unseal Garber’s divorce file (the lawyer, Chuck Middleton, faces a felony perjury charge related to that motion). Another count alleges Pope used $10,000 in public funds to appeal his criminal contempt of court ruling, and the final malfeasance count claims he hired a lawyer to accompany several deputies on an interview with the DA’s office in connection with the criminal probe of the marshal himself. The DA alleges Pope hired the lawyer, Jonathan Jarrett, as a “spy” who could report back to Pope’s criminal defense lawyer what the employees told investigators. “He wants his guy on the inside,” Haney said, telling jurors Jarrett spent 30 minutes after the meeting on the phone with Kevin Stockstill, Pope’s attorney who had recommended Jarrett.

McLindon countered that Pope hired the lawyer as a courtesy to his employees who were nervous about the DA interviews. The employees all testified that they appreciated having an attorney accompany them.

McLindon told jurors that in order to convict Pope they must find that he intended to commit these crimes, arguing, for instance, that Middleton mistakenly billed Pope for the motion to unseal Garber’s divorce. Pope and other Garber opponents believed the file contained a salacious video that would embarrass Garber.

Whatever the outcome of this case, it’s really only the beginning for the embattled marshal.

Haney, however, maintained in closing arguments that Pope and Middleton set out to “manufacture a letter” claiming the invoice was sent to the marshal inadvertently and then Middleton reimbursed the funds (with a cashier’s check) only after they were caught. The Independent began questioning the bill after it received Middleton’s invoices as part of a public records request; throughout the civil case, both Pope and Middleton refused to produce the so-called “Mr. Redmond” motion for the news organization, claiming they had no knowledge of it. Read more on this truly extraordinary turn of events in this 2016 post-election story.

He faces fines and jail time if convicted. He will be immediately suspended without pay from his office if found guilty on just one of these felony charges. According to state law, the suspension lasts throughout the appeals process.

Whatever the outcome of this case, it’s really only the beginning for the embattled marshal. He faces seven additional felony malfeasance counts for pocketing thousands of dollars in garnishment fees after receiving an opinion from the attorney general’s office that it is illegal to do so. His arraignment on those new charges is set for Oct. 23.