HOUMA, La.—Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s deputies raided a home Tuesday in hopes of uncovering who is behind an anti-corruption blog aimed at Sheriff Jerry Larpenter and other local politicians.
“Exposedat” is a blog, claiming to be “Terrebonne Parish’s Underground Watchdog”, that started publishing short articles about politicians and their business dealings in June.
The first post titled, “Black Man and a Noose”, outlined a civil rights lawsuit filed against a company owned by now-Parish President Gordon Dove called VACCO, Inc.
Subsequent articles have called into question business dealings and relationships of other top Terrebonne Parish officials, including Sheriff Larpenter and District Attorney Joseph Waitz, Jr.
Tuesday, sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant on a home in Houma, seizing computers and cell phones, alleging the blog’s author committed criminal defamation against the parish’s new insurance agent, Tony Alford.
The home belonged to Houma Police Officer Wayne Anderson. He denies having any involvement in Exposedat. Deputies took two laptop computers, one of which belonged to his children, and five cell phones.
Anderson is a long-time police officer, formerly serving as a Terrebonne Parish deputy and a New Orleans Police officer.
“I’m not sure if they believe Mr. Anderson is actually the author of such work,” said Matthew Ory, Anderson’s attorney.
The search of Anderson’s home was one of three warrants executed in the Sheriff’s attempts to expose Exposedat, according to Larpenter.
The other two were for computer and Facebook account information.
Exposedat’s Facebook page was created by an account using the pseudonym John Turner.
While Anderson denies any involvement in the blog, even if he did create it, legal experts agree it would very likely be protected speech under the 1st Amendment.
Attorney Mary Ellen Roy said the U.S. Supreme Court has found Louisiana’s criminal defamation statute unconstitutional when it is used “…to punish public expression and publication concerning public officials, public figures and private individuals who are engaged in public affairs.”
Sheriff Larpenter and Alford were pictured together in a Tweet featured on Exposedat’s most recent post three days ago.
When Larpenter was asked whether there is a conflict in him investigating an alleged crime involving himself, he replied, "If you're gonna lie about me and make it under a fictitious name, I'm gonna come after you."
He went on to say that once he finished investigating the blog, he would turn the case over to District Attorney Waitz to determine if Waitz wanted to prosecute it or “hand it off.” Waitz is also featured on Exposedat.
“When we're talking about speech directed at matters of public interest questioning the activities of a public official, that is constitutionally protected speech of the highest order, and prosecutions for that sort of public comment are extraordinary,” said Loyola Law Professor Dane Ciolino.
Even though legal scholars say a successful criminal prosecution for defamation is unlikely, the fallout from the investigation is already causing problems for Anderson.
Houma Police Chief Dana Coleman suspended Anderson from the force indefinitely, placing him on paid administrative leave. Anderson’s attorney says he has not yet received paperwork on the suspension, but that they were told the chief alleges Anderson didn’t uphold the law and committed conduct unbecoming an officer.
Chief Coleman didn’t respond to a call seeking comment on Anderson’s suspension.
Larpenter maintains his deputies have probable cause to conduct the investigation and that it was enough to secure the three warrants.
The one they used to search Anderson’s home was signed Tuesday by Judge Randall Bethancourt, who was not serving as the on-duty judge for criminal cases that day.
Houma attorney Jerri Smitko often represents police officers, and Anderson called her when the raid on his home was being carried out Tuesday.
She said she immediately called Judge Bethancourt to try and keep deputies from searching Anderson’s computers and phones until they could have a hearing on the legitimacy of the warrant.
The Judge issued a stay and ordered that the evidence be secured by the Terrebonne Parish Clerk of Court until a contradictory hearing could be held. A date and time for that hearing has not yet been scheduled.