An air of disappointment filled 15th Judicial District Judge Jules Edwards’ courtroom Friday morning, a day after the judge ordered Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope to appear and take the stand in the marshal’s latest public records battle with The Independent.
In the end, Pope’s highly anticipated testimony was not to be — at least not today.
That’s because before Pope could make it to the witness stand, procedural wrangling between Pope’s criminal defense lawyer, Kevin Stockstill, and The IND’s attorney, Gary McGoffin, resulted in Edwards siding with Stockstill in deciding that the newspaper must amend its original lawsuit to include the latest records it is seeking — unredacted legal bills between Pope and one of his attorneys, Chuck Middleton. Specifically, the paper aims to answer whether a Nov. 17 motion Middleton prepared and billed to the marshal’s office is the motion Broussard resident Troyce Thorla filed in district court that same day to open the sealed divorce file of Sheriff-elect Mark Garber.
The IND obtained Pope's legal bills via public records requests. Middleton's invoices are the only ones that were redacted.
For obvious reasons (see Louisiana Revised Statute 42:1116 - Abuse of Office), using public resources for Pope's political grudge against the sheriff-elect has harsh implications for the city marshal, who is already under criminal investigation by District Attorney Keith Stutes’ office — and, potentially, attorney Middleton himself. Middleton, who was also supposed to testify Friday, now has his own attorney, Leslie Schiff of Opelousas.
McGoffin confirmed to the court that he will file the amended petition within the next two weeks. Edwards — who in January ruled that Pope’s responses to The IND’s public records requests on Oct. 8 and Nov. 30 violated the state's public records law and then in March held him in contempt of court — yesterday ordered both Pope and Middleton to court today to testify about the bills and mysterious motion before halting the proceedings based on Stockstill’s argument. The original lawsuit sought email records related to the bizarre press conference Pope held in October at the marshal's office to lodge false accusations against then-candidate Garber and Sheriff Mike Neustrom.
The IND’s current push for the unredacted attorney bills and the unexplained Nov. 17 motion are the latest in this newspaper's ongoing battle to prove the lengths the marshal went to last year to advance the campaign of Garber’s opponent and Pope’s longtime friend, Scott Police Chief Chad Leger.
Pope has appealed Edwards’ January decision that he failed to adequately respond to The IND’s public records requests and is also appealing Edwards’ February criminal contempt of court ruling ordering him to serve jail time, make public presentations and pay thousands in fines.
Those appeals formed the basis for Stockstill’s argument that The IND must amend its original petition or file a new public records lawsuit. “The case is over,” Stockstill said. “The case is at the Third Circuit.”
The Advocate’s Billy Gunn captured the attitude of the courtroom and the judge himself shortly after the proceeding:
“It’s so painful to move forward,” lamented Judge Jules Edwards, who sat back, rubbed his face with both hands and granted another continuance in a case that has dragged on for months.
In the meantime, Pope’s attorneys — he now has four (five if you include Middleton’s legal consultations with attorney Clay Burgess, who records show is not billing Pope for his advice) — must by Monday at noon provide to the court Pope’s legal bills and accompanying privilege log, an explanation by each entry noting justification for the redaction based on claims of attorney-client privilege. Along with that, they must submit the unredacted bills to the court so that the judge can decided whether attorney-client privilege was properly invoked.
At last count, Marshal Pope had run up more than $81,000 in legal/consulting bills, including the $750 his office paid Middleton for the motion at the heart of the latest court battle, all of which he has paid from the City Marshal Expense Account. Additionally, he is personally liable for the more than $100,000 in legal/expert fees, court costs and penalties the judge ordered him to pay The IND for failing to turn over the emails requested by the paper on Oct. 8 and Nov. 30.