April 1, 2016 12:42 AM

Transparency and accountability are both the means and the end of public records law.

City Marshal Brian Pope enters the Lafayette Parish Courthouse for day one of his contempt hearing.
Photo by Robin May

It would be easy for us to gloat over the severity of City Marshal Brian Pope’s sentence, handed down in our public records dispute in March. Even with all but seven days of his 30-day incarceration suspended, it’s seven more days of imprisonment than we requested. Combined with penalties and fees north of six figures, the ruling could be unprecedented in Louisiana. But what gets lost in the hurrah of a press victory like this is the very crime the original public records request sought to uncover — namely Pope’s wanton race baiting and abuse of office for the benefit of his political ally, Scott Police Chief Chad Leger. We’re fairly certain that’s not unprecedented.

At a press conference back in October, Pope appeared in dress regalia — flanked by four on-duty deputies, appearing at Pope’s request — and became a mouthpiece for Leger’s anti-immigration vitriol in the form of an attack on Leger’s opponent, now Sheriff-elect Mark Garber. Leger’s people wrote the script, emailed it to Pope and Pope in turn emailed it to the world. Pope lied under oath about the Leger campaign’s authorship and orchestration of an official Lafayette City Marshal press conference. He deleted the emails and got caught by a backup server operated by LCG.

Pope’s bungled foray into politicking showed the lengths to which a cadre of bullies would go to get their way, namely by scaring voters into believing that criminal immigrants were amok in Acadiana and that Mark Garber was their herald. Even if Pope’s assertions were right, his evidence didn’t prove it. Garber had indeed gone to Honduras, but the video supplied as evidence did not show Garber courting illegal migration to the United States. The numbers Pope concocted to support his and Leger’s scare-mongering amounted to a grossarithmetic of racial profiling. He added “Spanish” offenders to “Other” offenders and arrived at a sum total of 611 undocumented migrants with outstanding warrants. Immigration status isn’t recorded at city court. Under oath, Pope has claimed this was all part of an investigation, one that never advanced beyond an email to city court to get the above numbers.

Mere days after Pope’s conference, a phantom limb from Donald Trump’s race war of a presidential campaign extended into Leger’s rhetoric. At the press conference, Pope called Lafayette Parish “a de facto sanctuary for illegal immigrants,” and the numbers he cited, the language he used and the yarns he spun were all part and parcel of the same package of race bait. Pope even attempted to justify the official nature of the conference to this reporter by forwarding a link to a World Net Daily article about the “sanctuary city” bogeyman.

Looking back, it’s hard not to point out that had he only turned over the records we requested, he would have gotten off relatively easily. It’s thus easy to look at this abuse of power as barely worth reproach. Everybody does it, or so the marshal’s saying goes. That’s a sad reality — a political milieu in which citizens are so jaded that they take corruption for granted and yawn when it doesn’t amount to bloody scandal.

Moving forward, Pope’s legal defense will try to swiss cheese the court’s rulings against Pope by way of semantics. That’s the prudent defense if you’re trying to avoid accountability, and it’s Pope’s right to pursue it. Provided his counsel is effective, he may not get what many think he deserves. But even if criminal indictment never comes or the civil penalties never stick, it will be hard for Pope and Leger to avoid an outed public record rife with abuse of power.

From a legal standpoint, our dispute and the penalties enforced are about public transparency. Public transparency is about holding power accountable. In many ways, that’s already happened here.

Email Christiaan Mader at christiaanm@theind.com