The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux has proven evasive in his evolving attempts to defend a suspect loan received by one of the his top aides. The Acadiana Advocate kicked over a hornet’s nest with a story that raises questions of conflict-of-interest and influence-peddling.
Shortly after Robideaux’s October 2015 victory, he bought a north Lafayette home owned by Marcus Bruno’s wife, one listed for years in arrest reports as the residence of a repeat drug offender.
Acting on conflict-of-interest and influence peddling allegations first reported by The Acadiana Advocate, Councilman Jay Castille called on the mayor-president to investigate a suspect loan to one of his assistants.
Former Community Development head says Bruno’s loan warrants an investigation. The council is mulling one.
Former Community Development Director Phil Lank says a HUD-backed small business loan to mayoral assistant Marcus Bruno represents a conflict of interest.
The gist: Leaving the courthouse Wednesday, the consensus among observers was that former Knight Oil Tools CEO Mark Knight would trade in his affluent lifestyle for the confines of the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. But there’s a catch.
If Knight qualifies for the sheriff’s Alternative Sentencing Program, he’s likely to return to the comforts of his luxurious home with an ankle monitor after reporting to the jail on Feb. 15 to begin his sentence.
15th Judicial District Judge David Smith sentenced the wealthy businessman to a year in the parish jail on a corrupt influence conviction for the critical role he played in the 2014 conspiracy to plant illegal drugs on his brother, Bryan, and have him arrested in an ill-fated attempt to wrestle control of the family company.
In August, Mark Knight, 61, pleaded no contest (which has the same implications of a guilty plea) to public bribery and corrupt influence. On the former, he was sentenced Wednesday to four years hard labor, suspended, three years of active supervised probation, a $1,000 fine, court costs and 300 hours of community service. He also must forfeit $87,000, the amount prosecutors say he paid to his three co-conspirators — then-Knight Oil employee Russell Manuel, former Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Kinch and former State Trooper Corey Jackson. Manuel, Kinch and Jackson pleaded guilty. Manuel got no jail time, and Kinch was sentenced Wednesday to three years hard labor, suspended, two years of active supervised probation, a $500 fine, 150 hours of community service and court costs for public bribery. He got a year of home incarceration for corrupt influence. In early December, a prescient Kinch boasted to a sheriff’s deputy that he would only get probation, saying a deal had “already been worked out,” according to a media source who overheard the conversation.
Jackson will be sentenced in April.
Wednesday’s sentencing brings closure to the years-long saga that has forever tainted the Knight legacy and hastened the downfall of one of Acadiana’s largest privately held companies. Had Mark’s case gone to trial, Assistant District Attorney Alan Haney promised to introduce evidence from a March 2015 Knight Oil Tools internal investigation showing that Mark laundered money, used corporate funds for personal expenses and stole $2.4 million from the company through the sale of scrap pipe and tubing.
Haney implored the judge to put both Knight and Kinch behind bars, arguing this specific crime was a distortion of the entire criminal justice system because it manipulated police officers who arrested Bryan, and then attempted to hoodwink prosecutors and the courts to convict him.
Haney singled out the prosecutorial instincts of the late ADA Richard Weimer, who immediately recognized there was “something fishy” about the arrest and declined to prosecute Bryan Knight. “They used me as a weapon,” Haney maintained, urging the judge to send a message to the wealthy and powerful Mark Knights of the world that they “can’t use me and they can’t use you.”
“It calls into question everything we do,” the prosecutor told the judge. “Anything less than jail time is not appropriate,” Haney said, making special note of federal judges who have been sentencing to more than a year in jail first offenders who violated the public trust, specifically naming Barna Haynes, who used to work in the district attorney’s office. “Everyone is watching,” Haney emphasized.
Mark Knight’s criminal defense attorney, Mike Skinner, asked for leniency, calling his client a “good, kind and generous man” and a “loving husband and son.” Skinner talked of how Knight had worked his way up in his father’s company and built it into the largest of its kind in the world. He also spoke of Knight’s charitable work, stressing the amount of good deeds he did “mostly anonymously,” and said that “the circumstances surrounding this case are extremely unlikely to occur again.”
Judge Smith spoke of the numerous letters that had been written to the court on Mark’s behalf, including one from his victim, Bryan. Bryan’s letter will remain under seal, Smith noted.
What has not been previously reported is the extent to which the lead investigator believed much of the Knight family was involved in the scheme to clear Bryan out of Mark’s way. The 32-page arrest affidavit for Russell Manuel, written by then-Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Captain Kip Judice and obtained by The Current, includes shocking accusations by Manuel that numerous family members were aware of the plan to set Bryan up, though the extent of their alleged involvement remains unknown.
From the affidavit:
“According to Manuel Mark Knight was 100% aware that the plan had changed from just catching Bryan with illegal drugs … to plant[ing] the dope on him. Manuel stated that this all started after a meeting with Manuel, Trish Knight (Mark’s wife), Pam Nagota (sic) (Trish’s twin sister), and Heather Knight (Mark’s daughter). Heather told Manuel that [her brother] Zack’s wedding was coming up and the family did not want Bryan arrested near the wedding date and that they wanted Bryan in jail for the wedding.”
At the sentencing, Judice told me the family members named by Manuel refused to be interviewed during his investigation. “My thoughts are it was common knowledge in the Knight family that these officers were targeting Bryan,” Judice said. “Each individual’s level of knowledge varies. I do think that both Mark Knight’s wife and Heather had specific knowledge that there were added benefits to make [the arrest] happen, the payments.”
After the verdict. A stoic Mark Knight ignored this reporter’s questions. His attorney, Skinner, called Manuel’s allegations of family involvement “ridiculous.” Skinner declined any additional comment, citing the ongoing civil suit filed in federal court by Bryan Knight against his brother, Manuel and the two former law enforcement officers.
District Attorney Keith Stutes declined to comment on Manuel’s claims of family involvement.
The Advocate has pounced on The Daily Advertiser’s newsroom, snatching up several reporters and a senior staffer in a coup that could cripple Lafayette’s flailing daily.
A national retail operator with a reputation for buying troubled malls and investing little in them bought Acadiana Mall in mid-January.
The gist: State and federal lawsuits filed this week allege suspended Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope, at the time facing seven felony counts of malfeasance in office and perjury, took the extraordinary step of targeting his perceived political enemies. The suits were filed by Steven Wilkerson, who co-chaired the failed effort to recall Pope.
Pope allegedly ordered employees to retaliate against Wilkerson and recall organizers. The suits claim he instructed office personnel to run criminal background and outstanding warrant checks on those seeking to remove him from office. In addition to Pope and interim City Marshal Mike Hill, defendants are Deputy Paul Toce, and an unidentified deputy, dispatcher and warrants supervisor. Wilkerson alleges Pope violated his constitutional rights when the marshal had him arrested Dec. 11, 2017 — less than 24 hours after the recall effort failed — on a defective warrant for issuing worthless checks 20 years ago. In February, District Attorney Keith Stutes dismissed the charges against Wilkerson.
Wilkerson, who says in the suits he has since moved out of state to escape the ongoing retaliation he feared, is seeking actual and punitive damages for public humiliation, embarrassment and invasion of privacy, along with attorneys’ fees.
Pope was convicted on four felony counts earlier this year. The suspended city marshal is awaiting a sentencing date and plans to appeal. Just last week, a 17-count superseding indictment accused him of pocketing approximately $85,000 from the marshal’s office this year after receiving an attorney general’s opinion that he could not legally do so. In April, Pope was also warned by the CPA firm auditing his office’s financial statements — it wasn’t the first warning — to “cease this practice and seek legal counsel regarding compensation taken prior to the January 29, 2018 AG opinion.” It does not appear that Pope will be charged for supplementing his salary to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars from 2015-2017 — the time period prior to the January AG opinion, which was merely a restating of an earlier opinion that the fees can only be used to support the operations of the marshal’s office.
— Read the full federal lawsuit here. —
Marshal Hill says he received a state grand jury subpoena to turn over financial records shortly after his October swearing in.
The Louisiana State Police and the FBI have looked into Pope. In early 2018, LSP performed an audit following Wilkerson’s arrest and the allegations around it, according to sources with knowledge of the examination. It’s not known what that audit turned up, but the FBI has been asking questions. Recall co-chair Aimee Robinson says she was interviewed for 2.5 hours by two FBI agents in February. Robinson says the agents asked a lot of basic questions — why she got involved in the recall, why Wilkerson was chosen as co-chair, whether she had a vendetta against Pope, had she known Pope prior to launching the recall — before getting to what she believes was the purpose of the meeting.
“To me the focus seemed to be around Pope’s efforts at retaliation,” she says. Robinson says she hasn’t heard anything from the feds since February.
Aguillard’s decision caps off an anguished and twisting run-up to Saturday’s vote on the controversial tax. Where once the chief appeared to disagree with his rank and file, he now finds their interests aligned against the sheriff.
Challengers are already mulling 2019. LUS could be the platform they need.
The council and administration patched an unexpected hole in the current budget with a windfall of sales tax collections and a new solution to the the Buchanan garage problem: sell it to private interests.
The gist: If the Bernhard Capital Partners/NextGEN proposal to take over operations of LUS has any council support at this point, it was hard to see it at Tuesday night’s council meeting. In an encore performance, this time before the whole council, NextGEN’s management team attempted to make the case for how a private company can do a better job than government running Lafayette’s 120-year-old municipal utility company.
Council to Robideaux: It’s time to state your intentions. Councilman Bruce Conque was insistent Mayor-President Joel Robideaux — who left the meeting long before it was over — state his position on the proposal and whether the effort to privatize LUS will be opened up to other potential suitors (Entergy and CLECO are both interested). Absent Robideaux’s willingness to put his own political capital behind this new direction for LUS’s future, Conque said the administration should move forward on hiring a top-notch director, one who should be attracted with a highly competitive salary.
Right now, LUS is run by an interim director, following the early retirement of longtime Director Terry Huval. Conque’s language was added to a resolution formalizing an agreement between the council and the administration that a new director not be named until the smoke clears on the idea of outside management of LUS.
William Theriot put a pressure cooker time limit on the deal. After NextGEN’s presentation — which Councilman Jared Bellard asked for but requested be abbreviated to less than 20 minutes from the LPUA version — Councilman William Theriot turned to City Attorney Paul Escott and directed him to draft a resolution that would effectively wash the council’s hands of the NextGEN proposal or any others like it for the time being. That resolution, also aimed at easing anxiety the NextGEN proposal has caused for LUS employees, will state that LUS is not for sale, for lease or open to any takeover of its operations and management.
While non-binding, the resolution would ice potential suitors with a clear statement of the council’s position on monetizing LUS. Council members have complained that public criticism has been trained on them, despite not initiating LCG’s flirtation with NextGEN.
Theriot, a staunch and vocal conservative, put his foot down to defend a government-owned monopoly. After months talking with “the owners and consumers of LUS,” he tells The Current he was ready to nip this deal in the bud.
“This is not what the people want,” he said. “Then why are we going through the motions?”
What happens now? We’ll know in two weeks where Theriot’s eight fellow council members really stand on NextGEN’s proposal. He only needs four more votes to effectively kill the deal.