HOUMA, La. – One week after Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter seized the computers and phones of a suspected online critic, angry residents came to the parish council to defend free speech rights and to question Parish President Gordon Dove for hiring an insurance agent who is at the heart of the controversy.
“It’s painfully clear public trust has been lost and it must be regained,” said Shelly Ronquillo, who sits on the Houma Downtown Development Corp. board and said she was afraid, but felt compelled to speak out. “I wholeheartedly support First Amendment rights and everyone's right to free speech and the freedom to talk openly about public officials without fear of retaliation. And I'm concerned that freedom has been squashed in this community.”
Larpenter vowed to “come after” a blogger who he alleged was spreading “lies” about him. No one has said what the lies are, but insurance agent Tony Alford, whose company writes the insurance coverage for the sheriff’s office, filed a criminal complaint alleging defamation by the same blogger.
The complaint is against the anonymous author of the ExposeDAT website and a Facebook page under the fictitious name “John Turner.” After getting search warrants to collect information from Facebook and AT&T, the sheriff’s office traced the Internet postings to the home of Houma Police Officer Wayne Anderson and raided his house last week. Anderson is appealing the search warrant in a state appeals court and in federal court. Anderson denies being behind the ExposeDAT blog or the “John Turner” Facebook page.
Meanwhile, he was suspended indefinitely by the Houma Police Department for “conduct unbecoming” an officer.
According to a sheriff’s office affidavit in support of the search warrant, the blogger committed a misdemeanor by stating that Alford pays a six-figure salary to Sheriff Larpenter’s wife, Priscilla, who writes insurance for the sheriff’s office.
Alford contends the sheriff’s office contract is with a separate firm owned by his partner, Christian Lapeyre. But Alford also told investigators that he makes money off the sheriff’s office deal. What’s more, state corporation records show that Alford, Lapeyre and Priscilla Larpenter are principals in another insurance firm created just last year called ALL Property & Casualty Services LLC.
The parish council heard the issue Monday because the parish president recently asked for an ordinance allowing him to hire Alford as a broker for the parish's property and casualty coverage. The council voted this week to send the issue to a public hearing on Aug. 24.
There are questions about the parish’s arrangement with Alford.
First, the council already approved the new insurance coverage brokered by Alford without an ordinance or contract, as the parish code requires. The new insurance policy took effect Aug. 1.
“They’re doing this after-the-fact,” Ronquillo said.
Second, the parish attorney told the state Ethics Board in June that Dove and Alford are business partners in at least two firms. The state Ethics Board said that’s OK as long as Dove doesn’t benefit from the insurance business seeking the contract.
Third, there was no public bidding process for the insurance contract. Dove acknowledged that Alford came to him, unsolicited, and asked to write insurance for the parish. Parish Attorney Julius Hebert said it’s a professional services contract that doesn’t require a bid process, but attorney Jerri Smitko, who represents the Houma police officer whose house was raided last week, argued the parish code does not include insurance agents under its definition of “professional services.”
Another resident, Lucretia McBride, asked the parish council how they could have allowed the arrangement with Alford to move forward.
“Somebody should have saw this coming,” she said. “I am so, pardon my French, pissed off about this.”
Ronquillo directly challenged Dove, saying she and others in the community trusted him and he now needed to regain that trust.
“On October 25th of 2015 (after winning the parish presidency) you said, 'I would like to thank the great people of Terrebonne Parish for trusting me to run your parish.' And you end it with, 'I will not let you down.' Well, Mr. President, it appears you have let the people of Terrebonne Parish down,” Ronquillo said. “But what is most important is what you do from this point forward.”
Dove stood by his actions, saying a “pack of lies” on Facebook had misled the public about the deal with Alford.
“Ma'am I'm sorry if you've lost trust, but if you're going to believe Facebook, I've been putting Facebook aside for 12 years,” Dove said, referring to his three terms as a state legislator. “I've never had any problems before. I fought corruption all my 12 years in government.”
But then Dove said his hiring of Alford is being unfairly tied into Alford's criminal complaint against the blogger, a case being disputed in front of Judge Randall Bethancourt. For that, he blamed WWL-TV.
“Now, you have Channel 4 right here, who came in, and that case from Judge Bethancourt's court is being played out in the media,” Dove said. “Please don't let it be played out in the media.”
Dove says Alford was able to get three years of coverage that will save the parish money. But the ExposeDAT site also questions other contracts and positions Dove pushed through in his first few months as parish president.
With council approval, he hired his longtime campaign treasurer and CPA David Prevost for a $96,000-a-year part-time consulting contract.
He created a new position of office manager that pays $79,000 a year to replace a lower-priced secretary job, then hired his former legislative aide Debbie Ortego. She is married to parish Risk Manager Dana Ortego, who is in charge of the insurance contracts and also defended the hiring of Alford.
In a rare admission from a politician, Councilman Dirk Guidry agreed that he and his colleagues acted as a “rubber stamp” and failed to question many of Dove’s moves during the “honeymoon period.”
“Maybe I should have said something,” Guidry said. “And I'd like to apologize to the people if I did let them down on this. But I can guarantee I will be watching everything a lot closer.”