Cover Story

Mixed Messages

District 43 state representative candidate Patrick LeBlanc is running on a platform of ethics reform and transparency in government. So why is he refusing multiple interview requests from The Independent Weekly and shirking questions about his company's role in a corruption scandal in Texas?

The race for District 43 state representative turned rough before it even got started. Longtime District 43 Rep. Ernie Alexander, who'd held the seat for two terms, seemed a sure bet to run for a third term but fired an unexpected salvo in an e-mail to supporters and message on his Web site back in August. Alexander was miffed that fellow Republican State Sen. Mike Michot wouldn't be endorsing him, remaining neutral due to the unexpected candidacy of Republican newcomer Page Cortez.

The 46-year-old Cortez, co-owner and operator of La-Z-Boy Furniture, quickly raised $40,000 before qualifying, attracting notable supporters such as Schilling Distributing Co.'s Herb Schilling and local landmen Rusty Peyton and Mark Hopkins. Cortez and Michot are longtime friends and were fraternity brothers at UL Lafayette, and Cortez's supporters include Louisiana Capital Certified Development Company President Andre Frugé, one of the fundraisers and campaign organizers that helped fund and elect Michot and independent state Rep. Joel Robideaux.

Michot already had his share of enemies in hardline Lafayette Republican circles, due to his support of independent Robideaux and support of City-Parish President Joey Durel's failed road/sales tax proposal.

Alexander, who only had $11,900 on hand heading into qualifying, bowed out within two weeks. The next question was whether the Lafayette Republican Party could find a hardline conservative opponent to run against Cortez ' a candidate with a sizable personal war chest that could be used in the campaign.

Enter Patrick LeBlanc.

It's LeBlanc's first run for elected office, but the 53-year-old architect and co-owner of private prison firm LCS Corrections (whose predecessor is Gulf Coast Corrections, Inc.) is no stranger to politics. LeBlanc's enterprises ' LCS and Premier Management ' have secured contracts with government agencies for at least 10 years. The firm has been awarded contracts in states including Louisiana and Texas.

In addition to the prison system contracts, LeBlanc is a longtime behind-the-scenes force on the local political scene. He's contributed funds to multiple candidates over the years, most recently hosting a 2005 fund-raiser for U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany attended by Vice President Dick Cheney, and he recently contributed $4,600 to Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani. In December 2006, LeBlanc mailed out an eight-page survey gauging local residents' opinions on local, state and national candidates, fueling speculation that he was gearing up for a bid for office.

In the week leading up to Sept. 4-6 qualifying, LeBlanc's potential candidacy received some unwelcome news. In Bexar County, Texas, Sheriff Ralph Lopez resigned and pled no contest to three misdemeanor charges in the wake of an investigation that found Lopez and his campaign manager John Reynolds illegally accepted money and an all-expenses-paid fishing and golfing trip to Costa Rica from Premier Management while the company was being considered for the Bexar County jail commissary contract.

Lopez' campaign manager, John Reynolds, later pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft, that could bring him up to a decade in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Neither Premier Management nor Patrick LeBlanc has not been charged with any crime, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation is continuing its investigation into the Bexar County scandal. In August, LeBlanc told The Independent, "We're not from that area. We went in, we sold our service; they wanted us to do the commissary service. We operate a good, clean business and to think that we might have been taken advantage of in that regard just turns my stomach." LeBlanc subsequently told The Advocate he was fully cooperating with investigators and could not comment on specifics of the case.

The Bexar County case didn't deter LeBlanc from going forward with his District 43 state representative bid. And as the campaign heads to the Oct. 20 election, LeBlanc and his supporters have waged an aggressive pushback campaign against a number of media outlets ' including The Independent Weekly ' that have reported on the Bexar County case.

Public enemy No. 1 for Patrick LeBlanc is the San Antonio Express-News, which first reported on the Bexar County investigation in December 2005. LeBlanc filed a lawsuit against the San Antonio newspaper in 2006 alleging that it libeled him, and the suit is still pending. (A clerk at the San Antonio courthouse said last week that there has been no activity regarding the lawsuit for a year.)

The Express-News has continued its coverage of the Premier Management/Bexar County ties, and in mid-September 2007 also reported that a sheriff in Kleberg County gave Premier a contract to run its jail commissary and received consulting fees from Premier Management.

The most recent Express-News reports were picked up and commented on by the San Antonio Lightning online newspaper, which Lightning Publisher/Editor RG Griffing describes as "conservative, but we're also muckrakers. We think that's a lofty thing to be."

Last month, Griffing called LeBlanc's Lafayette campaign headquarters to speak with him. LeBlanc, through campaign worker Judy Keller, refused to comment. During the telephone call, Griffing asks Keller if LeBlanc plans to sue him, too. Griffing then later posted a recording of the phone call on the Lightning's Web site.

Lafayette's KVOL 1330 AM morning show host Todd Elliott discovered the audio and played it on his morning show ' which prompted a phone call from Keller and a heated phone call from LeBlanc to KVOL Operations Manager Charles Sagona. "[Keller] said Todd had played some audio from her, and she didn't give him permission to record it," says Sagona. "She said her husband was an attorney, and she was looking into legal action. I offered her a chance to come on the show and tell her side of the story and asked her how she wanted to resolve it. Before I could talk to Todd, I got a call from Patrick LeBlanc. He spoke in an elevated tone the entire conversation. He said he was going to sue us until we can't afford gas money."

Sagona, who hadn't heard Elliot's broadcast that morning and didn't know what Keller and LeBlanc were referring to, went back and listened to the tape. "I told Todd, 'Well, that was boring,'" he says. Sagona told Elliot to proceed with his broadcast as usual and never heard from LeBlanc again. The next morning, Elliot directly addressed LeBlanc and the lawsuit threat on the air.

"I am a news commentator," said Elliot. "Therefore I can talk about whatever I want. Just about anything and everything is fair game. I can talk about anything and anyone in the news. I did not record the audio (mp3), I did not edit it, I did not publish it ' I downloaded it from a news Web site out of San Antonio. In fact I prefaced it by saying that it was an 'alleged' phone call to Mr. LeBlanc's office. I actually questioned your opposition, Mr. Page Cortez, in this studio if he was running a clean campaign. Because he is the opposition in light of the supposed 'smear campaign' which you have claimed on numerous occasions. If you do not want me talking about you, then stay out of the headlines. I will not be silenced. I have offered your campaign equal time on these airwaves, and I now offer you [again] publicly. I will not 'ambush you' as you claim that I will. I will give you the respect that I have shown every politician who has been a guest in my studio. If you choose not to come on these airwaves, so be it. But your silence on these airwaves speaks volumes."

Meanwhile, The Independent Weekly has covered developments in Bexar County in three of its last six issues, noting, for example, that U.S. Rep. Boustany and Ernie Alexander have endorsed LeBlanc, and that LeBlanc has always maintained his innocence regarding all Bexar County dealings. When Independent Senior Editor Leslie Turk asked LeBlanc after a Lafayette Chamber of Commerce candidate forum two weeks ago whether he had any comment on the latest developments in the case, including Reynolds' guilty plea earlier that day, LeBlanc responded, "I have said all I'm going to say regarding that matter."

In recent weeks, The Independent has published in-depth stories on the District 31 and District 44 state House races, featuring interviews on the issues and campaigns of the candidates in those races, and hoped to do the same for the District 43 race. I have never met LeBlanc and looked forward to meeting him in person for an interview.

I left phone messages at Patrick LeBlanc's office last Monday and Tuesday, and also sent an e-mail on Tuesday to his campaign Web site. I still had not received any response by Wednesday when I placed a call to former Lafayette legislator and LeBlanc supporter Ron Gomez and told him I wanted to interview LeBlanc but hadn't heard back from him. Gomez sent me the following e-mail on Thursday:

"Concerning Pat LeBlanc, I spoke with him last night briefly and, considering the article in yesterday's paper, with its continuing bias and rehashing of old news, he is disinclined to an interview. He said he would consider such if it would be confined to the important issues facing the new legislators and the state.

"In light of the tone, misinformation and content of the last month's stories concerning him, he doubts such an interview would be possible."

I sent this e-mail in response:

"I respectfully disagree with your assessment of The Independent's coverage on Mr. LeBlanc.

"I would be happy to interview Mr. LeBlanc regarding the issues in the campaign for District 43, as I have done with multiple candidates in local and statewide races for the Oct. 20 election.

"However, I will not agree to an interview where a candidate for legislative office dictates the terms of the interview. Mr. LeBlanc is under no obligation to answer any questions he chooses not to, but it's a violation of basic journalism principles for a reporter not to ask questions about various topics at the request of the interviewee.

"At a time in Louisiana history where voters are hungry for more answers and transparency from their elected officials and candidates for office than ever before, I hope Mr. LeBlanc will reconsider his position on the terms of the interview. If so, I'm happy to meet for the interview as late as tomorrow morning, extending my original deadline of today.

"If not, it is my journalistic duty to note in the story why Mr. LeBlanc declined to be interviewed, for the reasons cited above and in your e-mail."

Gomez called and said LeBlanc would be willing to do an interview the following morning, but called back later in the day and said LeBlanc had changed his mind and would not agree to an interview.

In many areas, LeBlanc and Cortez are mirror images of each other: They're proud fathers, have coached their children's sports teams and are both business owners. On the issues, Cortez and LeBlanc are each using ethics reform, education reform and increased road and infrastructure funding for District 43 as central planks of their campaigns. "No. 1 is obviously roads and transportation for Broussard, Youngsville and Lafayette," says Cortez. "Far and away the statewide issue is ethics. We need to have full legislative disclosure. All the ethics reform in the world means nothing if we keep electing people who break the law. And third is education, which also means educating our work force, and that ties into being business-friendly."

When asked the biggest difference between himself and LeBlanc, Cortez answers, "I have not been political. I come from a business and education and coaching background. I've raised my family with those values, and believe I can bring those to the Legislature."

Since LeBlanc refused to be interviewed by The Independent Weekly, here are some of the questions we hoped he would answer:

1. What's your primary motivation for running for District 43 state rep?
2. What are the primary differences between yourself and Page Cortez?
3. You say you're pro-life, but you've been one of the biggest local supporters of the Rudy Giuliani campaign, and Giuliani has a long record of being pro-choice. How do you reconcile that dichotomy?
4. What specifically did the San Antonio Express-News write that caused you to sue the newspaper for libel?
5. You've been in the private prison business for more than 20 years. Why did Premier pay consulting fees to the Kleberg County sheriff and Bexar County Sheriff Ralph Lopez's campaign manager?
6. Former Premier employee Ian Williamson left the company in late 2006. Why did he leave, and why did he call Bexar County's Reynolds in spring 2007 after he left Premier, asking for receipts for donations Premier made to his charities?
7. How can you assure District 43 voters that the ongoing investigation in Bexar County would not distract from your legislative duties if you are elected?

For his part, Cortez is taking the high road when it comes to the questions regarding LeBlanc's Texas dealings. "I'm not going to run a negative campaign," he says. "This is my first campaign, and I want people to vote for me because they've met me and they believe in me and trust me."

While Cortez is remaining above the fray, anonymous critics and supporters of LeBlanc have flooded the Web sites of The Independent Weekly and The Daily Advertiser with posts about the campaign. The invisible LeBlanc supporters have been the most vocal and nasty, leveling accusations of a smear campaign against LeBlanc and even going so far as to make homosexual jokes about Michot and Robideaux.

Now Michot and Robideaux aren't going to remain silent about the campaign anymore. Last weekend, an attack ad funded by the Michot and Robideaux-founded political action committee Leadership for Louisiana ran during the LSU/Florida football game and has also been posted online at YouTube. In the ad, various newspaper articles referencing the Bexar County scandal are superimposed over a voiceover from LeBlanc's own ad campaign.

With 10 days remaining until the Oct. 20 election, a race that started out nasty now looks to become a full-fledged battleground. And the biggest unanswered question is whether District 43 voters will draw a clear distinction between two candidates who, on the surface, appear to stand for the same values.

- additional reporting by Nathan Stubbs and Leslie Turk