Vidrines awarded $1.6 million for malicious prosecution

by Heather Miller

In her 142-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Doherty describes Hubert Vidrine as an "almost stereotypical Cajun gentleman" whose reputation was destroyed by former EPA Agent Keith Phillips.

Opelousas resident Hubert Vidrine's 15-year battle with the feds over false criminal environmental charges and malicious prosecution ended Friday when Vidrine was awarded $1.67 million in damages from the federal government.

Vidrine sued the government in 2007 on behalf of he and his wife, seven years after he was accused by the feds of illegally storing hazardous waste at the Canal Refinery in Church Point, which Vidrine managed at the time.

As noted in The Independent's July 20 blog, "When the EPA Swat Team comes a knockin'," the "hazardous waste" the EPA was in search of more than a decade ago was observed the day before when State Police stopped a truck that was delivering materials to Canal. Field tests showed the materials were questionable, which prompted the EPA to send samples to a laboratory for actual testing:

According to the civil lawsuit Vidrine has since filed against the U.S. government, "subsequent lab reports did not show that Tank 402 contained hazardous waste ... For the following three years, no charges were filed against Canal or any employee of Canal based upon the evidence obtained."

Throughout the entire investigation, EPA Agent Phillips and FBI agent Ekko Barnhill, who were jointly investigating the case, were having a sexual relationship, according to court filings, one that gave Phillips a reason for needing to travel from Dallas to Lafayette as often as he did.

The United States government eventually dismissed the indictment against Vidrine in September 2003, the night before the trial was set to start and seven years after the raid on Canal took place.

In June, Doherty heard almost three weeks of testimony and referenced upwards of 15,000 case-related documents. At the end of July, Phillips was fired from the EPA after 20 years of employment and indicted on federal charges of obstruction of justice and perjury for lying under oath in an effort to conceal his relationship with Barnhill.

"Neighbors and members of their small community were asking them, again and again, about the indictment and the details of the criminal case," U.S. District Judge Rebecca Doherty says in her ruling. "The Vidrines testified many people in their small community just assumed Mr. Vidrine was a criminal, merely because he had been indicted. Both felt genuine humiliation, discomfort and embarrassment. The Vidrines went from being well respected and well liked community leaders to objects of diversion and curiosity. Hubert Vidrine is an independent, hard-working, scrappy, almost stereotypical Cajun gentleman. Mr. Vidrine was stripped of perhaps his most valuable asset, his good name, and the consequence of that may never be fully ameliorated."

Doherty points out in her ruling that punitive damages cannot be awarded in civil cases against the government. If punitive damages were allowed, she says, they would have been given in this case.

"Keith Phillips, for his own purposes, set out with intent and reckless and callous disregard for anyone's rights other than his own, and reckless disregard for the processes and power which had been bestowed him, to effectively destroy another man's life - conduct which cannot go unaddressed, or unrecognized," Doherty says in her ruling.

Read more on Vidrine and Phillips here, here and here.