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KATC Investigates: Judge rules Pope paid lawyer to draft Garber - KATC.com | Continuous News Coverage | Acadiana-Lafayette

KATC Investigates: Judge rules Pope paid lawyer to draft Garber motion

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Brian Pope booking photo 8/18/16 Brian Pope booking photo 8/18/16

City Marshal Brian Pope used tax money to pay a lawyer to draft a motion aimed at unsealing a political candidate's divorce record, a state judge ruled.

Judge Jules Edwards on Tuesday issued his ruling on several issues raised during an August hearing that centered on Pope's ongoing dispute with local newspaper The Independent over public records related to Pope's actions during last fall's race for Lafayette Sheriff.

On Wednesday, a panel of judges from the Third Circuit Court of Appeal heard arguments in Pope's appeal of another ruling made by Edwards in the case. That panel's decision is expected later this month. In that hearing, attorneys for Pope and the Independent argued about who filed the lawsuit and whether Pope should have to pay the statutory fines for failing to produce the public records.

In his most recent ruling, Edwards issued a 14-page opinion that discusses both Pope's October press conference about Mark Garber, who was then a candidate for sheriff and now is the sheriff, as well as Pope's responses to various public records requests from the newspaper. 

Based on the evidence presented, Edwards ruled that Pope did pay a local attorney, Charles Middleton, with city marshal funds to draw up a motion to open a sealed divorce case involving Garber. But Pope didn't file the motion in court, a local man did. After the Independent asked for copies of Middleton's bills and the documents he produced, Middleton returned the money he was paid to Pope's office and said he "was unable to locate that motion in his files," Edwards wrote. 

Edwards also ruled that Pope worked with Joe Castille to "carefully coordinate" the content of several emails Pope sent out prior to his October press conference. Castille is a local political consultant who was running the campaign of Garber's losing opponent, Scott Police Chief Chad Leger, at the time. He also was running the campaign of now Mayor President Joel Robideaux at the time. 

The press conference (KATC attended it; see that story here) discussed the classification of Lafayette by an anti-immigration lobbying group as a "sanctuary city" and Garber's work as an attorney. After the press conference, which the Independent also attended, the newspaper asked for all emails that passed between Pope and Castille. Pope responded that he didn't have any, and later testified to that effect. But the City-Parish, which at the time of the public records request was still under the authority of City-Parish President Joey Durel, responded by providing the Independent with hundreds of emails in response to a parallel public records request. 

Since that time, Pope has been indicted on two counts of perjury, accused of lying in that testimony. He also was indicted on three counts of use of public money to influence an election, related to divorce motion, the press conference and a fundraiser. Edwards' ruling mentions another Louisiana law, which sets criminal penalties for those involved in a conspiracy to hinder the inspection of public records - whether they are the public official who has custody of the record or not. 

Edwards ordered Pope to give the Independent the list of email addresses that he and Castille sent notice of his press conference to, with personal details removed; he ordered Pope to provide the invoices Middleton sent him without any details removed; he ordered Castille to produce the email list to the Independent; he ordered Pope to pay the Independent the fines for failing to produce the documents when requested; and he ordered that Pope post a larger bond for his appeal.

Currently, Pope is appealing all of Edwards' rulings in the case. To do that without paying the fines first, he has to post a bond while he is appealing that is equal to the amount the judge has ordered that he pay. That's close to $200,000 now, court records show.

During Wednesday's appeals hearing, attorneys Gary McGoffin, who represents the newspaper, and Mark D. Plaisance of Thibodaux, attorney for Pope, argued Pope's appeal of a ruling Edwards issued in January.

Plaisance argued that the entire lawsuit must be thrown out because it was filed by The Independent and not a human being. Louisiana's public records law states that anyone over 18 can inspect a public record. And while the state Constitution states that corporations are considered persons, the legislature clearly meant that only a person can make a public records request, and thus only a person can file a lawsuit when their request isn't answered, Plaisance argued. 

McGoffin countered that the public records law also states that any person (without any mention of age) can receive copies of public records. He said that's clearly referring to corporations, because while corporations can't inspect records they can surely receive copies of them. McGoffin also said that, even though the first request was made to Pope by a reporter and the second was made by McGoffin himself, both requests clearly stated that the records were being requested "on behalf of The Independent." 

"There's no basis in law that a corporation that pays taxes and is subject to regulation by public agencies doesn't have the right to examine the public records of those agencies," McGoffin said. 

Plaisance also argued that Pope shouldn't have to pay the penalties to the Independent because the law sets penalties for public officials who don't respond to requests - and Pope did respond, he said. Whether Pope's response about the records was incorrect or correct, he did respond, Plaisance argued. 

McGoffin said Pope's response did not comply with the law. Pope said documents related to the press conference weren't public records because they were related to an investigation.

"There was no investigation. This was a political stunt for a campaign," McGoffin said. "You may not lie and you may not misrepresent and have that serve to comply as a response under the law."

Pope lied about whether the documents existed, McGoffin said. 

"This whole thing was scripted by Joe Castille for Brian Pope to make a political speech against a candidate he opposed," McGoffin said of the October press conference. 

KATC reached out to Castille for comment but has not received a response. 

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