Pope and recall organizer settle civil rights suit

Recall co-chair Steven Wilkerson (blue shirt) looks on as Brian Pope is escorted to jail in 2018 after the marshal's probation was revoked in the public records suit that led to his felony indictments. Photo by Leslie Turk

The gist: An organizer of the effort to recall City Marshal Brian Pope has settled the federal lawsuit he filed against Pope late last year for retaliating against him just hours after the recall effort failed.

An order of dismissal was recorded by the U.S. District Court for the Western District on June 11, indicating the parties have reached a confidential settlement. A parallel suit filed in state court was stayed on the same day.

Get caught up, quickly. The suits were filed by Steven Wilkerson, who claimed Pope, in what amounted to retaliation, instructed office personnel to run criminal background and outstanding warrant checks on those seeking to remove him from office as well as other perceived political enemies. Wilkerson alleges Pope violated his constitutional rights when the marshal had him arrested the afternoon Dec. 11, 2017, on a defective warrant for issuing worthless checks 20 years earlier. In February, District Attorney Keith Stutes dismissed the charges against Wilkerson. 

HAPPENING NOW: Pope was scheduled to report to the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center by noon today to begin serving his sentence for malfeasance in office. District Judge David Smith sentenced him earlier this month to three years in the parish jail for each of his three malfeasance convictions, charges that stemmed from a public records lawsuit, with all but one year suspended. The sentences will run at the same time. It was unclear at sentencing (and remains unclear) whether Pope will ultimately serve that one year in one of Sheriff Mark Garber’s jail cells or under home confinement. 

Pope, who faces 19 additional counts of malfeasance, then asked the court to allow him to remain out on bond while he appeals his conviction. The DA’s office opposed the request, but it was granted by Judge David Smith, who set bail at $25,000, according to court records. Smith, however, imposed conditions: a home curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., except for working hours, along with GPS monitoring.

In addition to Pope and interim City Marshal Mike Hill, defendants were deputy marshals Paul Toce, Shane Duplechin and Tyrell Fenroy. 

Wilkerson, who said in the suits he has since moved out of state to escape the ongoing retaliation he feared, was seeking actual and punitive damages for public humiliation, embarrassment and invasion of privacy, along with attorneys’ fees. 

Duplechin and Fenroy are still with the office; Toce, whom Hills says had notified the marshal’s office of his intent to leave before the suit was even filed, is no longer an employee. 

No one was disciplined in the matter. “I reviewed the entirety of the facts set out in the lawsuit as well as the internal investigation I undertook,” Hill tells me. The marshal says the deputies complied with office policies and acted within the scope of their duties. “No disciplinary action was in any way warranted,” he says.

Hill says he has not yet been notified of a final settlement and that the marshal’s office was only required to pay a $10,000 insurance deductible that went to pay attorneys’ fees. “The policy is written so that attorney fees are considered a part of the deductible and are paid on a first dollar basis,” Hill says. “As I receive bills from the attorneys who represent us, I pay them up to the total deductible amount of $10,000.”

Hill would not comment on the settlement, which will be covered by the insurance company. Court records show the parties have 60 days to finalize the paperwork.

Hill tells me he had suggested to the insurance company that Pope have separate representation from him and the deputies, and the insurance company apparently took this advice. Pope was represented by Donohue, Patrick & Scott out of Baton Rouge, and Hill and the deputies by the Baton Rouge office of Phelps Dunbar. 

Wilkerson did not respond to a request for comment.

“The Wilkerson suit has been settled on confidential terms. That’s all I can say under the terms of the settlement,” his attorney, Gordon Schoeffler, tells me. 

State Police and the FBI looked into the matter of Pope’s retaliatory actions, sources familiar with those probes tell me. Recall co-chair Aimee Robinson was interviewed by the FBI in February of last year. “To me the focus seemed to be around Pope’s efforts at retaliation,” Robinson told me in December.