GONZALES — Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa has a new trial date in his election bribery case after some uncertainty about whether it would be tried before a local judge.
Judge Thomas Kliebert Jr.'s decision to set the July 10 and 11 dates came just a few weeks after the state Attorney General's Office decided not to pursue recusing him and the other judges of the 23rd Judicial District Court. The aborted plan had caused the parish president to lose another trial date set for earlier this month.
Before Matassa’s case heads to trial, though, Kliebert will hear arguments on March 27 whether the parish president's March 2017 indictment should be even continue to stand and be asked to weigh in on a dispute another judge already decided.
Matassa and co-defendant Olin Berthelot have been accused of trying to bribe A. Wayne Lawson, a 2016 candidate for Gonzales City Council, to drop out of the race.
Matassa is seeking to quash, or throw out, his indictment, arguing that Lawson, who lost the November 2016 council race, was not actually qualified to run. Matassa, under the law then, cannot be accused of trying to bribe an election candidate, his attorney argues.
Judge Jason Verdigets denied that motion last year but said the residency issue could be raised at trial. Verdigets later recused himself from the bribery cases due to his work with the parish president on a new courthouse.
At the time, prosecutors with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office had argued the Lawson’s candidacy was never legally challenged before the election and so he was a candidate when Matassa and Berthelot tried to bribe him in late July 2016, days after Lawson qualified for office.
The motion to quash is now being re-urged before Kliebert after state prosecutors sought to prevent jurors from seeing any evidence at trial on Lawson’s qualifications to run for office.
Speaking to reporters later outside the Parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales, Matassa's lawyer, Lewis Unglesby, continued to maintain his client’s innocence and said he and Matassa are anxious for the hearing on March 27.
“Our position has always been the same: Kenny didn’t commit the crimes. This is a political case. I keep hoping that the attorney general will look at the evidence and look at the law, and, if he did, it should be resolved,” Unglesby said.
The state Attorney General’s Office is going “to have make some decisions as to its consistency,” Unglesby said, because it’s previously taken a legal position “completely in agreement” with what he is now arguing to throw out Matassa’s indictment.
“Now in this case, they want to take a different position because that doesn’t fit with their agenda,” Unglesby said.
Assistant Attorney General Jeff Traylor said in comments after court that the Matassa’s case is in a position where the July trial date should remain intact.
“We’re close,” he said.
If it does move forward, the trial will come nearly four months after Matassa’s co-defendant’s trial on the same charge. Berthelot, a Gonzales businessman and longtime friend of Matassa's, is set to stand trial March 13.
Traylor announced Matassa’s trial and hearing dates Tuesday after he and Unglesby, met with Kliebert privately in his chambers for more than 30 minutes. Matassa wasn’t in court Tuesday.
Matassa and Berthelot are accused of offering Lawson a parish job and cash to renovate a trailer for a catering business. Lawson, with help from some of Matassa’s political critics and independent of law enforcement, secretly recorded Matassa and Berthelot allegedly making the offer. Both men have pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Also on Tuesday, Unglesby asked the judge to consider at the March hearing date if Matassa’s trial should be held at Ascension’s other courthouse in Donaldsonville.
Unglesby told Kliebert the location, which is across the Mississippi River and the Sunshine Bridge from Gonzales, has one large courtroom and could result in better participation by potential jurors.
“Because you have half the parish (that) lives over here,” Unglesby explained to reporters in Gonzales later. “Half the parish lives over there. They got to cross the bridge. It’s just historical fact.”
“A great number of people from, I guess we call this the east side, work on the west side, so crossing the bridge, the Sunshine Bridge, to go court is no big deal,” he added. “Conversely, it’s not true on the west side.”
A move to Donaldsonville would also send Matassa, a former longtime Gonzales City councilman, to stand trial in the place where he grew up and where he has an important part of his political base.
Census data also show that in 2016, slightly more than 90 percent of the parish’s 121,587 people lived in East Ascension Parish.