GONZALES — Judge Jason Verdigets recused himself Thursday from presiding over the election bribery case against Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa, citing both men's role in overseeing the planning and construction of a new courthouse.
The 23rd Judicial District judge wrote in court papers signed Thursday and filed Friday morning that he and Matassa both serve on a committee "deciding complex and significant issues in the designing, building and relocation of the Ascension Courthouse."
"While there is no present bias, prejudice or personal interest, the appearance of any must be addressed," Verdigets wrote. "The law directs that there cannot be any appearance of bias, prejudice, or personal interest or even the mere suspicion of partiality."
Judge Thomas Kliebert Jr., like Verdigets, a former prosecutor, was randomly assigned Matassa's case on Thursday.
Citing lack of space and poor design for security in the existing courthouse in Gonzales, Verdigets has taken the lead in a plan to build a new $26 million courthouse nearly catty-corner from the existing courthouse annex in Gonzales. That older building had a major addition that added new courtrooms in August 2003.
Verdigets' order represents an apparent shift in thinking. He announced at Matassa's and co-defendant Olin Berthelot's arraignments in May that he was working with Matassa on the courthouse, has known Berthelot's and Matassa's families for years, primarily because he went to school with their children, and was a Rotary Club member with one of Matassa's sons.
At the time, Verdigets invited prosecutors and defense attorneys for both men to file motions to recuse him if they felt it was necessary, though he said then he didn't think the connections would rise "to the level of self-recusal." Recusal motions from either side have not been filed.
But Verdigets' order on Thursday indicates the judge believes the level of work coming for the courthouse committee would could create the appearance of a problem.
"The appearance will just become too great under the law with the upcoming activities of the above-mentioned committee and this Court cannot and should not run the risk of a recusal issue before or during trial or on appeal," Verdigets wrote.
Verdiget is still presiding over the bribery case against Berthelot, a Gonzales businessman and longtime friend of Matassa's.
Matassa and Berthelot were already set to be tried separately: Matassa on Feb. 21 and Berthelot on March 13.
Steven Moore, Berthelot's defense attorney, said he believes Verdigets should recuse himself from Berthelot's case also based on the judge's stated concerns about an appearance problem with Matassa and the possibility of the judge's being in a position later to have to recuse in the middle of a trial or other later proceeding.
Moore noted that the facts of Berthelot's and Matassa's cases are intertwined. It is always possible either man could end up testifying in the other man's trial, either for the prosecution or the defense, Moore said. He added he would prefer Berthelot be transferred to Kliebert.
"It would be nice for one judge to handle both," Moore said.
Matassa and Berthelot were indicted in March with single counts of election bribery. They have both pleaded not guilty to the charges. The state Attorney General's Office is prosecuting the cases.
Verdigets, who is also presiding over the malfeasance in office case against Timmy Roussel, parish president in neighboring St. James Parish, added in the order Thursday that judges and parish officials do work together sometimes in running the courthouse. But Verdigets wrote the "typical working relationship normally may not rise to the level of recusal."
Roussel's attorneys had pressed earlier this year to recuse the entire judiciary of the 23rd Judicial District because of the role the parish president has in maintaining the courthouse and funding the court system in that parish. Verdigets sent the motion to an ad hoc judge, who rejected the claim May 5.
But, Verdigets wrote that the courthouse committee in Ascension and the recent state legislation to fund the courthouse provide "for a more unique situation and it must come under further scrutiny in the context of a criminal case to make sure all parties receive the most equitable trial possible."
Earlier this year, the 23rd Judicial District judges pushed for the funding legislation, which was passed, to raise civil filing fees to finance bonds to pay for the new building.
The Parish Council has already agreed to issue the debt. On Oct. 12, the Louisiana Supreme Court Judicial Council agreed to allow the parish to implement the new civil filing fees, which took effect Dec. 1.
The planned 80,000-square-foot building is undergoing architectural design.
Matassa and Berthelot were caught on tape in July 2016 talking to then-recently qualified Gonzales City Council candidate A. Wayne Lawson about stepping down from the fall election against incumbent City Councilman Neal Bourque.
During those conversations, the men also discussed paying $1,200 to convert Lawson's trailer into a food concession trailer and Lawson getting a parish job.
Matassa and his attorneys have said the offer of money was a loan for an old friend, and the loan and job offer were unrelated to the political advice to drop out of the election.
Ruth Wisher, spokeswoman for Louisiana State Attorney General Jeff Landry, declined to comment Friday, citing the ongoing criminal cases.