GONZALES — Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa and Gonzales businessman Olin Berthelot were indicted Friday in an attempted bribery scheme in which they are accused of trying to entice a candidate to drop out of an election last fall.
Matassa and Berthelot were each indicted on one count of violating Louisiana law by offering something of value to get a candidate to withdraw from an election.
The 11-person grand jury of eight men and three women was unanimous in its findings handed up to Judge Tess Stromberg of the 23rd Judicial District. The grand jury heard from four witnesses Friday, including Gonzales City Councilman Neal Bourque, for about an hour and 10 minutes. Two others testified last month.
Matassa and Berthelot both turned themselves in and posted $5,000 and were released.
If convicted of the charge, a felony, Matassa and Berthelot each face up to two years in state prison, with or without hard time, and/or a $2,000 fine.
"We were very pleased with the outcome today. It's what the facts dictated," Assistant Attorney General Jeff Traylor, who presented the case to the grand jury, said outside the Parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales. "Obviously, the grand jury made their determination based on the witnesses that they heard from and the facts that were presented."
The Attorney General's Office said both men are accused of bribing A. Wayne Lawson to drop out of the Gonzales City Council Division E race Nov. 8 against the incumbent, Bourque. In several discussions in late July, they offered Lawson money and a government job in exchange for his withdrawal from the race.
Hours after the indictment was announced, some said they already plan to press the Parish Council to consider motions to call for Matassa to resign or face a non-binding no confidence vote. That could happen as soon as Thursday.
The council can't force Matassa to resign and an indictment doesn't require him to leave office.
In addition to Bourque's testimony Friday, the grand jury also heard from Tammy Kundler and Donna Michael, two women who work in Berthelot's finance companies, and Christy Burnett, the parish health director.
The four sat together Friday morning and chatted nervously as each waited for his or her turn to go inside the grand jury chambers.
Prosecutors declined to describe the testimony or how it fit into the case, but Burnett is a longtime friend of Matassa's and a notary who was called to Berthelot's Gonzales office July 29, when Lawson alleges the bribery scheme was to be completed. The withdrawal form needed to be notarized, but the form was never filled out and Lawson never accepted the cash or the job offer.
After Burnett testified Friday, she hugged Bourque, the last to testify, and left the courthouse with her husband, Gary Burnett.
Lawson and an investigator with the Louisiana State Attorney General's Office testified Feb. 13 before the grand jury.
Lewis Unglesby, Matassa's attorney, said the prosecution was political and disputed that Matassa participated in a scheme to get Lawson to drop out of the race. Unglesby also alleged the law under which Matassa was indicted is unconstitutional.
"Last time I checked, candidates have been making agreements with potential candidates and giving them jobs in their administration if they get elected since Louisiana started," Unglesby said Friday afternoon. "Secondly, Mr. Matassa did not participate in doing anything wrong. He was having conversation … that is being manipulated by one of his political enemies for their own purposes, and his friend, Lawson, has allowed himself to be used for no legitimate purpose."
Unglesby questioned whether a meeting held between prosecutors with the Attorney General's Office and residents was proper.
The Attorney General's office has said the meeting was only to discuss the grand jury process, not the Matassa case itself. At the meeting was Brandon Fremin, Attorney General Jeff Landry's criminal division chief, who met with Parish Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee and other residents who are critics of Matassa's. The meeting came about a week after residents had met to complain about the slow pace of the investigation and were mulling recalls of Matassa and Landry.
“It was wrong for them to ask for an interview, but it was completely wrong for him (Landry) to grant that,” Unglesby said.
Steven Moore, Berthelot's attorney, said he wanted to let the case play out in the court and not in the media or online blogs.
"Just kind of let that ridiculousness go away, and let everything happen properly and in a courtroom," Moore said.
Moore said he had texted Berthelot about the indictment Friday afternoon but he and his client "were prepared" for it.
He also said that not much should be read into a unanimous grand jury decision because only one side of the story is presented.
One witness not called to testify was news website publisher Wade Petite, a strong critic of Matassa's.
Matassa and Berthelot, a finance company owner, had been accused by Petite and Lawson of the bribe in an Aug. 1 news account based on secret recordings.
Lawson and Petite say Lawson secretly recorded attempts by Matassa and Berthelot to bribe him with $1,200 to fix a food truck trailer and offered him a parish job if he left the race for Gonzales City Council seat. The alleged bribery attempt occurred through a series of meetings and phone calls in late July, according to the recordings and Lawson's allegations.
Parish and state investigators soon began looking into the allegations and the secret recordings.
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Twenty-third Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin had to recuse his office from the case last fall after it was discovered that members of his office had donated to Matassa's campaign for parish president in 2015, including top prosecutor Chuck Long. He turned the case over to the Attorney General's Office, which already was involved in the investigation.
In the months since the allegations have been aired, Matassa has continued running parish government despite early calls to step down. Babin and more recently the attorney general have come under fire from critics of Matassa for the pace of the investigation.
Satterlee, the Parish Councilman said he would send a letter to Council Chairman Bill Dawson Monday. The letter will seek to place on the agenda motions for Matassa to resign and for the council to issue a no confidence vote against him.
Dawson, who sets the agenda, said the request would be given "serious consideration." The council meets again Thursday. But he also said he wants to continue with the business of parish government.
"The council will continue to move forward to try to address the needs of the parish, which include recovery from the flood, improving transportation and trying to establish sewer in the parish," Dawson said.