March 31, 2016 02:16 PM

Daily newspaper opines after blistering contempt of court ruling.

It now appears that last week’s ruling by 15th Judicial District Judge Jules Edwards in the ongoing public records battle between The Independent and Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope is reverberating across the state.

Thursday’s editorial in The Advocate, a biting critique of Pope’s flagrant violation of the public records law and glowing assessment of Edwards’ decision to teach him a lesson, didn’t lose sight of the next obvious step in this process: “The judge said evidence produced by the suit serves as possible grounds to investigate Pope for perjury and malfeasance in office. We hope Keith Stutes, the district attorney serving Lafayette, takes Edwards’ lead.”

The editorial comes on the heels of last week’s contempt of court hearing in which Edwards threw the book at the city marshal, who was elected to a six-year term in 2014.

At the heart of the legal dispute between The IND and Pope is his failure to turn over emails and records in connection with the use of his office to boost Chad Leger’s failed campaign for sheriff by holding an October press conference attacking Leger’s opponent, now Sheriff-elect Mark Garber.

In December Edwards had ordered Pope to turn over the public records requested by The IND, but the judge later found that Pope’s responses to our requests were “woefully inadequate” and held him in contempt of court. At the contempt hearing on March 24, Edwards sentenced Pope to 30 days in jail with all but seven days suspended and ordered him to pay upwards of $100,000 in attorneys fees, court costs and penalties.

In his ruling, Edwards painted a picture of a law enforcement official who believed himself above the law by “willfully and obstinately” failing to comply with two public records requests, flaunting court orders meant to remedy that failure, using the resources of his office for his personal campaign and appearing armed and in uniform while in court.

“There is a long-standing rule in this court that law enforcement officers who are the named parties in litigation are not allowed to come into the courtroom while armed and in uniform,” Edwards said in court. “The rationale for this rule is the safety of the bailiffs and prevention of witness intimidation. The marshal’s conduct in this regard is another example of his apparent attitude that he is above the law,” the judge added.

“Judge Edwards’ ruling is clearly a strong message to public officials and custodians of public records around the state: If you willfully violate the public’s trust and keep records from the public with wanton disregard for the law, there will be serious consequences,” says Scott L. Sternberg, an attorney at Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer in New Orleans who also serves as general counsel for the Louisiana Press Association. “In Louisiana,” Sternberg continues, “the people have decided to enact laws to require transparent government. Advocates like The Independent believe open government is better government and that people deserve accountability.”

While The IND was confident in its immediate hunch that Pope was working closely with the Leger campaign when he held that bizarre, awkward press conference in October, we certainly could not have imagined all of the twists and turns we were in for as this case progressed. And now we can only hope that law enforcement officials with the ability, duty and resources to dig deeper are hearing Edwards’ words — and reading today’s Advocate.

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