AMITE, La. -- The Tangipahoa Parish Council has appointed former school superintendent Louis Joseph as the new councilman representing Amite.
Joseph replaces Michael Petitto, who is now suspended from the council without pay after his conviction on two counts of criminal malfeasance in office.
The case began back in 2006, when the Tangipahoa Parish Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting a development off Highway 51, on the northern end of Amite. The roughly 18 acres was scheduled to be developed into a subdivision to be called "The Grove."
Petitto helped push through that resolution, but what he didn't mention at the time of the vote was that his brother Salvadore was a primary player in The Grove.
"He was aware that his brother had a substantial financial interest in this project," Tangipahoa District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said Tuesday. "Ultimately, the brother does benefit on a one-day flip of the property. A one-day sale makes $197,000, and then 11 days after that sale, the councilman's home mortgage gets paid off by the brother who had the interest in the development."
Perrilloux argued in court that the property could not have been flipped and the profit could not have been realized without that resolution.
"The bottom line is, our councilman did end up with some pretty substantial self-gain from these actions," Perrilloux added, "and that was a critical factor in our analysis of the whole matter."
Perrilloux said it was the reason he pursued it as a criminal case, and not an ethics violation.
"Our position has always been that it may be an ethics violation, but not the charge of malfeasance," said Petitto's attorney, Gary Jordan.
The case became a legal pinball. After an indictment in late 2007, the district court threw out the criminal charge. That ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeals. Then, however, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed that decision and ruled that Michael Petitto could be charged on the criminal count.
On its second hearing at the district court level, Petitto was found guilty of two counts of malfeasance in office.
Petitto's attorney argued in court that the money transferred between the brothers was not a payment.
"It was a loan from his brother, and we presented evidence to that fact in the form of a promissory note," Jordan said.
Petitto still faces sentencing. Each count of malfeasance in office carries a maximum of five years in prison.
"We're weighing our options," Jordan said when asked about Petitto's next legal move. "Whether we're going to appeal the decision or if he's going to resign, we haven't made that decision yet."
Both Perrilloux and Jordan said, if Petitto had simply recused himself from the vote on the resolution, he probably wouldn't have been prosecuted. Instead, Perrilloux won what could be a landmark case.
"It was the first time I think that had ever been attempted," Perrilloux said of the criminal malfeasance charge in this case. "And I think that's why it took the legal process the time that it did and the different court session to finally, ultimately get a ruling from the highest court in the state, and that's what we were able to do."