Testimony began Thursday afternoon in Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope’s felony trial, with two of Pope’s deputies testifying that they were on the clock when the joined the marshal in the press conference central to his indictment.
Phil Conrad and Rodney LeBlanc, chief deputy marshal and deputy marshal, respectively, testified that they were first told that the press conference would be an endorsement for Scott Police Chief Chad Leger’s campaign for sheriff.
The press conference ultimately became a condemnation of Sheriff Mark Garber, then a candidate, who represented Spanish-speaking clients on workers compensation claims. Video surfaced during the 2015 election that showed Garber telling a Honduran news station that all workers in the U.S. have rights to make legal claims.
Pope’s comments during the press conference centered on that video, which jurors saw in court on Thursday. In the video, in response to questions from reporters after he read his pre-written statement, Pope said policies of then-Sheriff Michael Neustrom hindered their abilities to enforce the law against immigrants without documentation.
Both deputies testified that it’s problematic to enforce the law against undocumented immigrants, who may give false addresses and have no identification or phone number.
Alan Haney, the lead 15th Judicial District prosecutor on the case, focused on the testimony, asking both deputies who would have had the power to answer their grievances at that time.
Both Conrad and Leblanc acknowledged that it would have been Neustrom, not Garber.
Brett Grayson, one of Pope’s two attorneys, asked the deputies about an instance when the District Attorney’s office subpoenaed them for questioning in a criminal matter. Both deputies said they had no idea why they were being summoned until they arrived for questioning in the criminal matter.
According to the indictment against Pope, he used public money to pay for attorneys to represent those deputies, and it’s a crime to use public money for criminal defense.
Hillary “Joe” Castille, a political consultant who ran Leger’s campaign in 2015, also took the stand on Thursday. Castille acknowledged Pope wanted to hold a press conference and that Pope would support Leger. Castille drafted a press release and a media advisory. During testimony, Castille said emails exchanged between himself and Pope were through his government email address.
Castille testified that the media advisory and press release was emailed to a broad scope of people through his software. In order for the email to be sent, Castille said he needed to permission from Pope to use an email address. On stand, Castille said Pope consented to the use of his government email address on the release.
During cross examination, Pope’s attorneys stressed to the jury that Castille was never a political consultant for Pope nor was Pope ever a client. Castille also acknowledged, it is common for one public official to endorse another public official.
In opening statements shortly after lunch on Thursday, Haney reiterated to jurors the details behind the two perjury and five malfeasance counts lodged against Pope. The indictment centers around allegations the marshal used public money for political and unlawful purposes and lied when questioned about it under oath.
“Pope was given every opportunity to be truthful and got caught in a lie,” Haney said.
John McLindon, who represents Pope with Brett Grayson, told jurors that “Marshal Pope is not guilty of any of this.”
He urged the jury to “look for the intent as this case proceeds.”
Pope on trial for 7 felony counts
The charges against Pope stem from a 2015 press conference the marshal held condemning the private law practice of Sheriff Mark Garber. Garber offered his workers-compensation services to Spanish-speaking clients and was running at the time against Pope’s political ally, Scott Police Chief Chad Leger.
That press conference led to a public-records lawsuit, as the marshal refused to turn over any email correspondence related to the event.
Emails revealed during the course of the lawsuit showed Pope coordinated with Leger’s campaign manager when he planned the press conference. One of the malfeasance counts against him is based on the allegation that he held the midday press conference — one staged at his office with the marshal in uniform and flanked by uniformed deputies — during public time.
He also faces two perjury counts for denying in a sworn deposition that he planned the press event with Leger’s campaign manager and that he authorized the mass-email distribution that invited media to hear his comments about illegal immigration — which turned out to be comments about Garber’s law practice.
Both of the perjury counts are supported by emails uncovered in the lawsuit.
Pope also faces a count of malfeasance for allegedly using his office’s money for a lawyer to appeal his contempt-of-court conviction in the lawsuit — a conviction handed down to him when it was revealed the requested emails had been deleted from the marshal’s office computer, making them recoverable only through a backup server maintained by Lafayette Consolidated Government.
The emails also showed Pope enrolled an employee to write a fundraising letter for his re-election campaign — another malfeasance count.
Pope’s alleged use of public money to oppose Garber’s campaign is the subject of another malfeasance count, which alleges the marshal used his office’s funds to pay a lawyer in an effort to unseal Garber’s divorce records. He’s also accused of malfeasance for allegedly using his office’s money to hire attorneys for his employees, who were subject to questioning in a criminal matter unrelated to them.
Prosecutor: ‘Hold him accountable’
Haney told the 12-person jury and its two alternates that it will see an entire video deposition of Pope, as well as video of the 2015 press conference that mushroomed into the legal saga that’s plagued the marshal’s first term.
Haney urged jurors to “use your intuition” and take note of the marshal’s body language as he answers questions in the deposition. He also told them to take note that Pope held his press conference in uniform, surrounded by uniformed deputies, and from a lectern emblazoned with the office’s motto: “Holding Accountable.”
Haney urged jurors to consider that phrase.
“That’s what this case is about. Hold him accountable. Hold him accountable,” Haney said.
McLindon told jurors that Pope held the press conference out of “public concern,” and that Leger’s campaign manager helped him arrange it as a favor.
McLindon also brought up the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal law that spells out that employees are entitled to take breaks. He said it was a minutes-long press event that would have fit into the time allotted for an employee break.
Trial began Monday as lawyers in the case argued some outstanding motions. A 12-person jury was sat on Wednesday afternoon and two alternate jurors were selected Thursday morning.
Judge David Smith, the 15th Judicial District judge presiding over the case, on Thursday denied an outstanding motion for change of venue. Pope’s attorneys had requested to move the trial because of the years-long local news coverage of Pope’s legal battles.
Smith said earlier in the week that trial would last at least through Friday, and he indicated to jurors that they could be called to duty on Saturday.