Marshal Pope: a turn of the screw(ed)

by Walter Pierce and Leslie Turk

Did City Marshal Brian Pope use taxpayer dollars to cover the cost of legal action last year seeking to open the Garber divorce files? The paper trail suggests so.

Among the public records obtained by The Independent in its ongoing litigation against Pope is the November billing invoice from Charles Middleton, the first of now three attorneys to represent Pope in his court battle with this newspaper. Although the invoice — reproduced at the bottom of this story — was redacted before being turned over, it shows that on Nov. 16 Middleton billed Pope for one hour of work, citing “Draft motion; text conference with Brian re (redaction).” The next day Middleton billed Pope for an additional 2.5 hours for “Revise draft of motion; legal research for motion; conference with Brian re (redacted).” At $200 per hour Middleton collected a cool $700 for the work.

Two-thirds of the Marshal Pope legal team converse outside of the parish courthouse May 2: Chuck Middleton, left, and criminal defense attorney Kevin Stockstill
Photo by Robin May

The timing of this legal work by Middleton for Pope raised our eyebrows. The IND served Middleton with the lawsuit seeking Pope’s office emails on the afternoon of Nov. 16, but Middleton didn’t file anything into the court record titled “Motion” pertaining to our litigation until Jan. 2.

However, on Nov. 17 at 3:42 p.m., the same day the invoice indicated that Middleton revised a motion for Pope, a “Motion and Order to Unseal Record and Sealed Video and for Expidited [sic] Hearing” was filed in state district court by Troyce Thorla, the Broussard resident who sought to unseal the divorce files of then-sheriff candidate Mark Garber and his wife, Rachel Garber.

Thorla’s motion was filed three days before the runoff election between Garber and Scott Police Chief Chad Leger, a contest handily won by Garber. As this newspaper reported this week, Thorla later signed a notarized affidavit expressing regret for his role in the bid to unseal the Garbers’ divorce files. The affidavit goes on to attest that Thorla was pressured by Pope to file the motion seeking the divorce files because the Leger campaign believed there was information in them that would be damaging to Garber in his bid to be elected sheriff. The affidavit also states that Pope paid the legals costs in preparing and submitting the motion.

Thorla further attests in the affidavit that he picked up an envelope — presumably containing the motion to unseal the divorce files — at the Stewart Street office of the law firm Goforth & Lilly. Although he’s not part of the firm, Middleton leases office space from Goforth & Lilly at the same Stewart Street address. Coincidental perhaps — but probably not — the word expedited is misspelled in Thorla’s Nov. 17 motion to unseal the Garbers’ divorce files; the word is also misspelled in the same way — expidited — in a Feb. 23 letter from Middleton to attorney Clay Burgess, who is representing political operative Joe Castille, Leger’s campaign manager in last year’s failed sheriff bid.

The documents Thorla filed into the public record were not signed by an attorney but clearly drafted by Middleton, as evidenced by the consistent misspelling of expedite(d).

Troyce Thorla

It’s already been well-established through public records obtained in our suit against Pope that the marshal conspired with the Leger campaign to scare voters into believing there are possibly hundreds of criminal undocumented immigrants roaming the streets of Lafayette Parish because the sheriff’s office has made the parish a de facto “sanctuary city” by not complying with federal immigration laws. Sheriff Mike Neustrom had endorsed Garber ahead of the October primary. The affidavit signed by Troyce Thorla on April 5 further establishes that Pope had a principal role in the attempt to discredit Garber by unsealing his divorce files.

What the paper trail suggests is that Pope paid his attorney, Charles Middleton, to draft and revise the motion to unseal the divorce files that Thorla submitted on Nov. 17, and it’s been clear thus far in this saga that Pope has incurred no personal expense in his legal battle with this newspaper — it’s been covered entirely by the city marshal’s office, i.e., taxpayers. In other words, Pope used taxpayer money to help his pal Leger in his campaign for sheriff.

This would be a betrayal of taxpayer and voter trust of a proportion merely equal to the elected city marshal’s already well-established abuse of public office, but it leaves us marveling at the depth of the rabbit hole we dashed into last fall when we submitted a public records request seeking to understand the bizarre Oct. 7 press conference Pope held at his office regarding a now-discredited “investigation” into the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office’s compliance with federal immigration laws.

Currently pending in this saga is The IND’s latest public records request to Pope seeking a copy of the motion Middleton drew up for the marshal on Nov. 16 and revised on Nov. 17. If it’s not Thorla’s motion to unseal the Garbers’ divorce files we’ll be shocked.

Middleton did not return The IND's phone or email messages seeking comment for this story.

Also worth noting is the possibility that Middleton, in anonymously drafting the motion on behalf of Thorla, violated the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct addressing attorneys “ghostwriting” legal documents.

Stand by.