NEW ORLEANS — A federal agent who was arrested for criticizing the St Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office in emails to the family of a homicide victim has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Sheriff Randy Smith and two of his deputies alleging they not only violated his First Amendment right to free speech, but arrested him in retaliation for criticism of how the sheriff and his detectives were handling the high-profile investigation into the death of Nanette Krentel.
Jerry Rogers, an agent with the Office of Inspector General for the HUD, said he was taken from his home in handcuffs and booked into the St Tammany Parish Jail on September 16, 2019, after STPSO Detective Keith Canizaro spent weeks trying to uncover who was communicating with Krentel’s family through an anonymous email account firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Sheriff Smith used public resources to retaliate against one of his critics. That is public corruption. It is illegal,” wrote Rogers’ attorney William Most in the complaint filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana Thursday.
Rogers emailed Krentel’s sister, Kim Watson, a prosecutor in Iowa, about ten times raising questions about how the investigation was being handled, criticizing the lead detective and his experience with homicide investigations.
Smith has publicly defended the detective, Daniel Buckner, saying he is more than qualified to do the job.
"I am confident that any lawsuit... will prove to be frivolous and without merit. It's a shame that we must waste taxpayer dollars to defend such frivolous suits," he said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon.
Rogers was never formally charged with a crime in the case. St Tammany Parish District Attorney Warren Montgomery stepped aside from prosecuting the case because Rogers’ wife works for him. But the Louisiana Attorney General refused the charge, citing the unconstitutionality of the law.
RELATED: Who killed Nanette Krentel?
“As Sheriff Randy Smith publicly acknowledged, “some courts” have ruled that statute to be unconstitutional as applied to speech about public officials. Those “some courts” include the Louisiana Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court,” Most wrote.
The lawsuit names Smith, Chief Danny Culpeper and Detective Canizaro both personally and professionally for arresting Rogers, even after warnings from fellow detectives and prosecutors that Louisiana’s defamation law was unconstitutional.
Sheriff Smith has said Krentel’s family members asked them to investigate who was sending the emails, which revealed few details about the case, other than the hiring of an outside consultant to aid in the investigation, former US Marshal Genny May.
But Krentel’s family members deny ever asking the Sheriff’s Office to look into it, rather, Gina Watson, Krentel’s cousin, had asked the lead detective whether the STPSO was changing investigators because one of Rogers’ emails mentioned May working on the case.
“The warrant application contained false information, including that family members “requested [that the lead investigator] find the identity of the unknown author,” Most wrote in the complaint.
The court acted swiftly in another criminal defamation case exposed by WWL-TV, the arrest of a Houma Police Officer for defamation by Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter over a blog that published articles critical of Larpenter and other Terrebonne Parish leaders.
“Judge Africk held that “no law enforcement officer in Sheriff Larpenter’s position would have an objectively reasonable belief, in light of clearly established law, that probable cause existed to support a search warrant for the Andersons’ home” because it was based on criticism of a public official,” Rogers’ attorney wrote in the complaint, arguing the same applies to his client.
The Larpenter defamation lawsuit ultimately cost Terrebonne Parish taxpayers $150,000 in the form of a settlement with the officer and his wife, Wayne and Jennifer Anderson.
Sheriff Smith could not immediately be reached for comment on the Rogers lawsuit.
Rogers' arrest has been the only arrest made by STPSO in the Krentel homicide. It remains unsolved.
WWLTV will continue to update this story and have much more about the case on the Eyewitness News.