GONZALES — Defense attorneys for Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa and a local businessman have long claimed the stink of politics hangs over the secret recordings that led to charges accusing the two of trying to bribe a candidate to quit a race last year.

In routine pre-trial disclosures last week, prosecutors revealed that the man who directed the recordings loaned money to the candidate who claims Matassa and Olin Berthelot tried to pay him off — a revelation that ramped up defense claims that the case was in essence a setup manufactured for political reasons.

But several legal experts say that while the loans — made by Wade Petite, publisher of the Pelican Post news website and a past candidate for local office himself — might be unseemly, they're not enough to legally torpedo the case against Matassa and Berthelot, who are longtime friends.   

Still, the attorneys all agreed the fact that Petite loaned Gonzales City Council candidate A. Wayne Lawson $1,200 — the exact amount Matassa and Berthelot are accused of offering as a bribe — could become fertile material in a trial and the court of public opinion. 

Jarrett Ambeau, a public defender in Ascension Parish, said the loans are "mud to throw at the wall" so attorneys can raise questions in the media and in court to "bring an air of dishonesty to Mr. Lawson."

Ambeau, who is not involved in the case, said the argument could be that "he got a loan from the guy who recorded the conversation, a guy who had an ax to grind and would benefit from 'breaking' the news."

"I would use this as a bit of squid ink, try to muddy the water and attack the credibility of Mr. Lawson," Ambeau said. "I would suggest by inference that it was not a loan, but a payment for the tape."

Investigators with the Louisiana Attorney General's Office and Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office have known about Petite's loans to Lawson since early August, months before the March grand jury indictment of Matassa and Berthelot on counts of attempted election bribery. The existence of the loans became public knowledge earlier this month after investigative reports and transcripts were filed in court as prosecutors turned over materials to defense attorneys. 

The case stems from an election last fall. Lawson, a part-time barber and perennial candidate in Ascension, qualified to run against Gonzales City Council incumbent Neal Bourque. As the deadline for removing himself from the ballot approached, Lawson met with Matassa and Berthelot to discuss his possible exit from the election.

Lawson and Petite have alleged the recordings captured that meeting, subsequent phone calls Lawson had with Berthelot and Matassa, and the day when Lawson was supposed to withdraw from the race in exchange for a bribe. 

Harry Daniels III, a criminal defense attorney not involved in the case, said that in Louisiana, it is legal to record someone without his or her knowledge as long as at least one person who is a party to the conversation knows about the recording.

Daniels also said entrapment, a defense often raised against undercover stings, applies only to law enforcement or other "government actors" and only when they induce someone to commit a crime who was not already predisposed to do so.

Petite and Lawson aren't government officials. And Daniels noted Lawson told investigators that it was Berthelot who contacted him about meeting with Matassa, not the other way around.

"I don’t think it would meet any of the elements of entrapment," Daniels said.

Lawson told investigators he became immediately suspicious about Berthelot's call, which came shortly after he signed up to run for office. Lawson said that's why he contacted Petite about trying to record the meeting, in case something untoward happened.

Lawson told investigators that he had not been getting many telephone calls returned during a lengthy search for a job, including government positions. 

"But all of sudden now since I qualify for this particular City Council's race, individuals begin to call me," Lawson said, according to the investigative reports.

Even if the loans from Petite to Lawson were for the recordings, which the two men deny, legal experts didn't see that as posing any kind of criminal liability for them.

Ascension Parish public defender Jeff Heggelund, who previously worked as a sheriff's deputy in narcotics, said it is common for confidential informants to get cash as part of their work with law enforcement. This wouldn't be much different than that, he said.

"It's just part and parcel to the process, really," said Heggelund, who has done some civil legal work for Berthelot's companies in the past.

In the recordings, Matassa and Berthelot tell Lawson they think he should drop out of the Division E council race against Bourque. They also promise Lawson a parish job and $1,200 so he can turn a trailer into a food truck. The last recording captures the final transaction at Berthelot's Gonzales office, where Lawson was to fill out a job application and candidate withdrawal form and receive the $1,200 in cash, hours before a state deadline for him to drop out of the race. Lawson, however, didn't fill out the forms or take the cash. 

Steven Moore, an attorney for Berthelot, has claimed the loans from Petite were a payoff to Lawson to help arrange a setup. Moore and Lewis Ungelsby, the attorney representing Matassa, have said Lawson was a friend of the two men, and the cash offer was a loan to help him out, as was the job promise. The talk about dropping out was unrelated political advice, they've argued. 

Petite, part journalist and part political provocateur, and whose website is harshly critical of Matassa, was himself a City Council candidate last year at the same time as Lawson. In that separate race, Petite said he ran not to win the position but to call into question the city's designation of the particular seat as set aside for minority candidates. Petite is white. 

Lawson has a long history in Ascension politics, and at times was allied with Bourque, Matassa and Berthelot. But last year, Lawson entered the race to unseat Bourque. 

Mike Magner, a former federal prosecutor who now does white-collar criminal defense in New Orleans, said that through their public comments, the defense attorneys are trying to taint Lawson in future jurors' minds so they won't see Matassa and Berthelot's actions as anything other than local politics.

"And have the jury conclude these people are all just low-level political operatives and this is just sort of bare-knuckle political drama rather than any kind of illegal activity," Magner said. "And horse trading is part of the political process and, you know, getting allies to support your political campaign and your agenda is all part of the normal political process, and that can seem unseemly, but isn’t necessarily illegal."

Investigators said in their reports that Petite, Lawson and Dustin Clouatre, who also helped with the recording effort and provided $1,000 to Petite to loan to Lawson, largely corroborated one another's story.

But one of the legal experts, Daniels, noted that Lawson initially wasn't completely forthcoming with investigators about the loans from Petite. After some prompting by investigators, Lawson admitted to a $200 loan from Petite but said he could not recall any others.

Lawson also seemed evasive and unclear in some of his responses to investigators, who eventually asked him if he was taking medication. Lawson told them he had taken Xanax and hydrocodone.

Shortly after that interview, Lawson returned to the Sheriff's Office and encountered some of the investigators in the parking lot, according to one of the reports. He told them that in addition to the $200, he had received a $1,000 loan from Petite, who had told investigators about both loans a week earlier.

Moments after Lawson spoke the second time to investigators, Petite texted one of them to say he had just told Lawson to tell them about the second loan, the report says. 

"I think Lawson's credibility may be affected," Daniels said. "They may attack his credibility. He lied about the loan." 

Attempts to reach Lawson for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

Heggelund said such credibility questions wouldn't necessarily be fatal to the state's case. Heggelund suggested the state would have many questions to raise about Berthelot's actions, such as why cash, if it was a loan, wasn't handled through a normal promissory note. Berthelot runs financial services companies that routinely make personal loans.

And Ambeau said any financial transaction between Lawson and Petite would have nothing to do with whatever Matassa and Berthelot might have done to influence the election. He said prosecutors should ask a judge to keep jurors from hearing about the loans from Petite.

"In the end the financial transaction between Petite and Lawson, no matter its nature, is not relevant to the question of whether someone bribed Lawson with unrelated funds," Ambeau said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.