Let’s begin with the basics. At a Dec. 14 hearing, Judge Jules Edwards III of the 15th Judicial District Court issued a writ mandamus to City Marshal Brian Pope to produce email records stemming from The Independent’s public records request submitted to Pope's office on Oct. 8. Edwards ruled that Pope’s exchanges with The IND did not constitute an adequate response to our records request, nor did Pope sufficiently demonstrate that such records didn’t exist.
“The testimony of the marshal does not convince me that the records do not exist,” Edwards said. “I’m left with the possibility they do."
Edwards then gave Pope three days from the date of the hearing to perform the search.
Edwards further enjoined Pope from withholding any records pursuant to The IND’s request, and advised the marshal to retain the services of someone more technologically proficient to perform the electronic search requested. Perhaps at issue was Pope’s not-so-thorough explanation of the method of his Outlook inbox search that he claimed yielded no emails responsive to our request.
Edwards also granted The IND’s motions to depose Pope, scheduled for Dec. 28, and to set a Jan. 4 hearing for the 14 supplemental records requests submitted by the paper.
Pope's attorney stipulated to our motion to quash an onerous stock discovery request he submitted earlier this month that included a request for admissions clearly aimed at attacking our credibility by prodding for an untoward relationship between The IND and Sheriff-elect Mark Garber.
By law, a custodian of public record is allowed to ask only for the requesting party's identity and age. A protective order was included in our quash motion, preventing Pope from deposing or otherwise interrogating The IND's reporters under oath.
Before we get too far, we remind you that what piqued our interest was an Oct. 6 email advisory of this bizarre press conference sent to IND Editorial Director Leslie Turk from Marshal Pope's official email address using a digital mailing list manager called Campaigner. The parameters of our request included all emails sent to and from the marshal’s [email protected] address or any address used to conduct public business containing the keywords Garber, Neustrom, Chad, Leger, immigration, Honduras, worker, compensation, illegal, alien, haven, Castille, Team Leger, personal injury, campaign, campaigner, mailing list in the sender, recipient, cc, bcc, subject or content fields.
At the very least, a search properly responsive to our request would produce records of the press advisory email he sent to us or to any of the other media outlets invited to his conference. We’ve obtained copies of the press advisory his office sent to The Acadiana Advocate and KATC-TV3.
Ah, but there’s the rub. Marshal Pope denied in his testimony having ever sent those emails. He disavowed any knowledge of the advisory’s email distribution and claimed to have never used the service Campaigner in his life. By denying that original sin, Pope suggests that he would have no responsive records in his custody.
Pope’s trapped himself in a contradiction. His own attorney, Charles K. Middleton, responded to one of our follow-up requests with an Oct. 16 letter containing the following paragraph:
Addressing the original records request, it is my client’s response that there are no emails either to or from my client’s email address of [email protected] containing any of the “key words” requested to be searched by your client with one exception. Mr. Pope advised me this morning by telephone that the only emails that might contain one or more key words are email replies he received in reply to the subject “press conference notice” he had sent out via mass distribution via third party vendor across the country, that might contain one or more key phrases, particularly “Garber, immigration, workers compensation, illegal alien,” would likely be contained in a reply by a third-party to the instant press conference notice distribution. The responsiveness here would be due to the nature and subject of his press conference.
In his testimony, Pope suggested that someone must have hacked his email address to send the advisory to alternative media outlets. The City Marshal’s office, it would seem, does not deign to notify the rabble-rousers at The Ind of its pronouncements.
"I have never sent an email to [IND Editorial Director] Leslie Turk," he intoned.
Our receipt of that email, he seems to be saying, is de facto proof of his email account’s sabotage. Pope also testified that he did not investigate the purported hacking of his account despite knowledge of the existence of emails bearing his name, email address and office telephone number. Media planning to attend the press conference were asked to confirm their attendance by emailing Pope directly or calling the office number listed on the advisory. The only problem with that narrative is the following excerpt from Campaigner’s users manual:
Any email blast linked to Pope’s address would have to be authorized by Pope — or an appointed proxy — as the user of that account. It's a stretch to believe that this is a case of spoofing as awkwardly floated by Middleton in his closing argument.
The short-sightedness of this defense is particularly confusing when you consider that our basic suspicion, the raison d’etre of this whole folly, is that Pope’s bumbling, racist, anti-Garber smear job of a press conference was coordinated with the sheriff campaign of Chad Leger. The Leger campaign used Campaigner to issue a press release at least once that we know of (on the Paris terrorist attacks), and Leger's campaign manager, Joe Castille, regularly uses the service for his clients.
By denying having ever used Campaigner, Pope has also implied that his office was not responsible for the content of the advisory or the subsequent press release sent Oct. 7 via Campaigner (the exact press release he handed out at the press conference), supporting our suspicions that the emails were drafted and disseminated in collaboration with Leger’s campaign.
Pope volunteered in his testimony that there was nothing political about his press conference, as though that exonerates him from his basic official duty to make available to us records the law stipulates are public. Even if we're wrong and he was not in cahoots with Leger, he's still in hot water for failing to comply with our request.
This is a serious matter, one that could earn Pope the scrutiny of either District Attorney Keith Stutes' office or incoming Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry. It's worth noting that this will certainly compound with his previous ethical indiscretions reported by The IND during his campaign for office. He may not be forced to resign, but it may very well jeopardize his re-election.
Before it gets that far, Pope could be on the hook for our attorney's fees and additional penalties of up to $100 per day — should his actions be deemed unreasonable or arbitrary — according to Louisiana's public records statue.
While we can't say for certain that emails confirming our suspicions exist, we believe it's well established that Pope has disregarded his duty to public information. Contradictions in his testimony demonstrate that he's not been forthcoming about records legally requested, and has sought to avoid production at every step. If the documents are as innocuous as he once said they were, he should have produced them.
His evasion and opacity constitute a severe breach of public trust by an elected official, and show flagrant contempt for a public information tool essential to checking wanton abuse of power.