ST. MARTINVILLE, La. — St. Martinville Mayor Melinda Mitchell is no stranger to controversy. Now, she's entangled in a dispute over a parking ticket that has developed into much more.
It wasn't her car and she wasn't there when the police officer wrote the ticket, but she's now the center of a story about intervening in police business and missing public records.
The handicap parking ticket
Since April of this year, KATC Investigates has filed several public records requests with the City of St. Martinville.
One of those requests was for documents describing a 911 call on Dec. 8, 2018 where the St. Martinville Police Department was dispatched to Joyce’s Supermarket.
The officers who responded found a car parked in a handicap spot without a plate or placard.
According to the police report, the woman told the officer she would move the vehicle, but he still continued to write a ticket.
"He did not show aggression whatsoever and she was just being irate and hysterical as can be," said Crystal Proctor, who witnessed the woman parked in the handicap spot in the parking lot of Joyce’s Supermarket on that day and saw the whole incident.
"She was calling people telling them that the officer was being racist and she was just being hysterical, irate and crying," said Proctor.
In her written statement to police, Proctor said that the officer requested the driver’s license and registration of the woman parked in the handicap spot.
She then stated, “After repeating himself about five times, he was going to handcuff the lady and she yanked away from him.”
According to Proctor, the woman did not want to be arrested in front of her child.
Phoning a “friend”
KATC Investigates spoke to the woman who received the ticket, who says her first call was to Mitchell on her cell phone to see if she could help her get out of the ticket.
Records show it didn’t help as the woman was given a ticket.
Mitchell admitted to KATC’s Chris Welty that she was in fact on the phone with the driver as the officer wrote the ticket.
The driver in question, who asked not to be identified, told KATC that she wanted the mayor’s help to get out of the fine and to deal with the officer.
Mitchell would not confirm those details.
However, she did say that the driver is a constituent and that she knows her mother, but that they are not friends.
The chain of command
In a statement to KATC, St. Martinville Police Chief Ricky Martin said that same day his officer was contacted by Mitchell to meet her at her house after business hours while he was still on patrol.
According to Martin, the officer said the mayor and her husband, Lawrence Mitchell, questioned him about the ticket that he issued and told him that he was rude and needed to be more professional.
Martin said that the officer called him immediately after he left the mayor’s house and was concerned that the mayor did not follow protocol by calling the chief before or after questioning the officer.
Mitchell denies those claims, but tells KATC that she can’t remember if she informed the chief.
She said that she would never call an officer without calling the chief and maintains that she follows the chain of command.
In an attempt to verify what happened on that day, KATC Investigates filed a number of public records requests from the police department and the mayor.
While the police department complied, Mitchell has largely ignored some of our requests.
KATC Investigates sent the initial public records request to the mayor in April.
Mitchell then asked the police chief to respond despite our request being submitted to her.
We then revised our request and asked for all phone records for the month of December 2018, including the mayor’s call logs, text messages and voicemails on both her desk phone and her taxpayer-funded cell phone.
After months of back and forth, KATC Investigates was given incomplete phone records.
And, contrary to state law, Mitchell even questioned why we were requesting the information.
"Louisiana has a very strong public records law. It's intended to make sure that everyone knows that the records belong to the public," said Gary McGoffin, a local attorney who is an expert on the state’s public records law.
"Number one, you're not serving the public and that's what you're elected to do,” said McGoffin. “In terms of the public, our best opportunity to know what's going on in our government is through open meetings and public records. If those records are destroyed, that's one of the underpinnings of our democracy that's been destroyed."
KATC Investigates requested that the mayor’s cell phone be turned over for a forensic examination, which the mayor agreed to do.
However, Mitchell claimed that she forgot the passcode to the phone.
A forensic analysis found that the phone had been wiped clean.
KATC’s Chris Welty caught up with Mitchell after one of the city’s regular council meetings to confront her on what we discovered.
The mayor responded that she would not be issuing any comments on the matter.
KATC Investigates has reached out to the Attorney General's Office, State Police, the 16th Judicial District Attorney and the St. Martinville Police Department alerting them we believe we have evidence of a crime in St. Martinville.
At this time, it's unclear if any agency is investigating.