HOUMA, La. – Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s deputies raided a Houma Police Officer's house this week, under the theory that he was involved in an anonymous web site questioning the sheriff's public contracts.
Attorneys representing the police officer, as well as independent ethics and First Amendment attorneys, question the constitutionality of Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter’s effort to unmask someone for questioning his use of public money.
But Larpenter did not mince words in defending the search and seizure of the police officer’s computers and cell phones.
"If you're gonna lie about me and make it under a fictitious name, I'm gonna come after you,” Larpenter told WWL-TV.
Larpenter was talking about allegations made on the website ExposeDAT.in/wp, with links and comments about it on a Facebook page under the fictitious name John Turner.
Two previous search warrants led the sheriff’s office to believe the online posts were coming from the home of Houma Police Officer Wayne Anderson, and they seized his family’s computers and cell phones Tuesday.
Some of the anonymous posts ask why Larpenter's wife works for an insurance agent named Tony Alford, whose agency bills the sheriff's office monthly. They also point out that Alford just lined up new insurance coverage for the parish government as well, without going through a public bid process and without an authorizing ordinance that the parish attorney has said is required.
Jerri Smitko, a lawyer who is helping Anderson, said the sheriff’s willingness to go after people who comment on his use of public money is “scary.”
“People are afraid of retribution for expressing what is protected speech,” she said. “Speech that they’re allowed to make under the First Amendment.”
Larpenter's wife, Priscilla, apparently took to John Turner's Facebook page recently to challenge the validity of the ExposeDAT posts. A comment from her Facebook account disputes Turner’s assertion that her boss, Tony Alford, gets the brokerage fees every month for setting up insurance coverage for her husband’s public office. Priscilla Larpenter’s Facebook account’s post said she works for Alford’s firm, Anthony J. Alford Insurance, and not for Christian D. Lapeyre Insurance, which is the insurance agent-of-record for the sheriff’s office.
But the pseudonymous John Turner responds that's "moot” because of the partnership between Alford and Lapeyre. Public records show Alford and Lapeyre are partners in the Alford, Staples, Lapeyre & Robichaux insurance agency, and that Lapeyre uses that Alford, Staples, Lapeyre & Robichaux name on invoices billing the sheriff's office.
Records also show Alford used the ASLR firm name on documents when he recently gave new insurance quotes to parish government. He owns multiple businesses with Parish President Gordon Dove, who, the parish acknowledges, engaged Alford as the parish’s new insurance agent-of-record without any public bid.
A state Ethics Board advisory opinion written for the parish government in June said Dove could hire Alford as long as they are not partners in the insurance business getting the parish work. It also said the parish code requires an ordinance approving that hire and it must be done by contract. The parish told WWL-TV last week that neither of those exist, even though new insurance coverage Alford brokered for the parish – and can collect commission on -- began on Monday.
The parish risk manager is “preparing an ordinance to be introduced at the Council’s August 10, 2016, meeting that will name (Anthony J. Alford Insurance) as the parish’s Agent/Producer of Record for short and long term disability as well as basic and voluntary life insurance,” according to the parish custodian of records, Mart Black.
Loyola Law Professor and ethics attorney Dane Ciolino says these and other contracts discussed on the ExposeDAT site raise questions under state ethics laws.
“Those contracts should be examined. And the notion that search warrants are issuing and the house of a media commentator is being searched for the content of speech posted on a public website is absolutely extraordinary,” Ciolino said. “It’s amazing we’re having this conversation in Louisiana rather than in Iran.”
WWL-TV asked Alford about the allegations, but he wouldn’t answer specific questions.
"It's an ongoing investigation,” he said. “If you want to do credible reporting, you'll wait for the investigation to run its course."
Anderson did not get to wait and see how the case turns out before being punished. Six deputies seized two laptops, including his children’s laptop, and several cell phones. After the raid, Houma Police Chief Dana Coleman suspended Anderson from the force indefinitely, placing him on paid administrative leave, even though Larpenter told WWL-TV on Wednesday that he’s still trying to determine who is behind the website.
Anderson’s attorney Matthew Ory says he has not yet received paperwork on the suspension, but that they were told Coleman alleges Anderson didn’t uphold the law and committed conduct unbecoming an officer.
Coleman didn’t respond to a call seeking comment on Anderson’s suspension.
After detectives seized Anderson’s belongings, Judge Randall Bethancourt, who had signed the warrant in the first place, put a stay on it pending a hearing. The seized belongings are being held by the Clerk of Court in the meantime.
Larpenter said he plans to take the case to District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr., who is also mentioned in several of the website's postings.
Tuesday’s search warrant was based on potential criminal defamation charges, something Ciolino says should not be applied to constitutionally protected speech relating to public officials.
The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled the criminal defamation law unconstitutional "insofar as it attempts 'to punish public expression and publication concerning public officials, public figures, and private individuals who are engaged in public affairs.’”
“That statute is unconstitutional. We all know that,” said Jerri Smitko, a Houma attorney who represents police officers and was called to the house by Anderson when the sheriff’s deputies arrived. “But yet it's being used to target a man who's a good police officer and a decent citizen. His rights are being trampled on.
Smitko said as far as she knows, Anderson had nothing to do with ExposeDAT, but says that's almost beside the point.
“I don't want to have to worry about getting falsely arrested or having a bogus search warrant executed on me or anyone else, just because we exercised our constitutional rights,” she said. “That's not the society we're supposed to be living in.”