Try as I might, a few minutes into a recent staff gathering celebrating our arduous victory for the public’s right to access — and public officials’ legal obligation to provide it — I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for City Marshal Brian Pope. It’s a pang that was quickly subsumed in vindication.
Pope’s career, his credibility, his reputation are melting away before us — entirely his own doing — and there’s the very real and deserved possibility that he will end up as “former city marshal” sooner than the expiration of his current term in office at the end of 2020. But don’t take it from me.
“The events that gave rise to this litigation may serve as grounds to investigate Marshal Pope for various crimes such as perjury, malfeasance, and others,” District Judge Jules Edwards III wrote in his March 24 judgment finding Pope in contempt of court and ordering him to serve a week of house arrest, undergo more than 170 hours of training in Louisiana public records law and to pony up about $100,000 in fines, fees and court costs. It’s probably safe to say the severity of Edwards’ judgment surprised everyone in the courtroom except Edwards; ordering such punitive measures against an elected official over violations of public records law is, as far as we can tell, unprecedented. Judge Edwards was clearly exasperated by Pope’s unremitting obfuscation over the past several months of hearings, pleadings and depositions.
There’s a common prepositional phrase in Edwards’ ruling — “above the law” — as in “There is reason to believe ... that individual believed he was above the law” and “The Marshal’s conduct ... is another example of his apparent attitude that he is above the law,” and so on. This case was always about the public’s right to access public documents, and public officials’ duty to maintain and provide access to those records. The marshal’s sense of self-entitlement, his sense that he was not beholden to public records law, is the source of his current predicament.
City marshal is the third-highest elected position in Lafayette law enforcement behind sheriff and district attorney, and it seemed obvious that Pope considered himself above the law long before this newspaper ever submitted the public records request last October that led to these tribulations. It was fairly common knowledge that Pope and his wife motored around Lafayette for years without license plates on their vehicles, presumably to evade speed cameras. At the very first hearing before Judge Edwards, which took place in Abbeville in December, Pope cavalierly parked his SUV in the spot reserved for Vermilion Parish Sheriff Mike Couvillon, prompting an irritated sheriff to pop his head in the courtroom to find out who the hell parked in his space. Pope admitted in a later deposition that he used his office and staff to conduct fundraising for his political career — a clear violation of law — because he’s a public official and “everybody does it.”
Not everybody does it, and most who do don’t get caught.
Ultimately, Marshal Brian Pope is less Boss Tweed and more Keystone Cop, hence that pang of sympathy I felt at the staff celebration. I can imagine him waking up every morning and ruing the moment he ever agreed to participate in that “sanctuary city” scheme with then-sheriff candidate Chad Leger, the police chief in Scott; or that he ever crossed paths with Joe Castille, the reclusive, Howard Hughesian political operative who cooked up the canard to make idiot white people scared of the swarthy Mexicans. From a purely political perspective it was an ambitious plan, Machiavellian in its contours, but it required a level of coordination, execution and smarts that neither Pope nor Leger possessed.
Leger ended up losing the sheriff’s race. Pope stands to lose a lot more.
Email Walter Pierce at firstname.lastname@example.org