Former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Murphy Painter didn’t get everything he wanted in federal court last week, but he is chalking it up as a win.
A federal jury agreed late Friday that former ATC employee Kelli Suire defamed Painter in her 2010 state court lawsuit claiming Painter had stalked and sexually harassed her. But the jury Friday said Painter failed to prove Suire defamed him in an Office of Inspector General’s search warrant application based on the same allegations.
In a written statement Monday, Painter said the trial “began to expose the players involved in the efforts to run me off and the jury’s verdict clears my name of Ms. Suire’s lies and allegations.”
Painter said the decision marks “the next step in trying to heal the pain that those lies have caused to my family and me.”
Suire’s attorney, Jill Craft, described the verdict as inconsistent and said Monday she had filed a motion for U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick to overturn it. Dick took the motion under advisement and will rule after both sides file briefs.
“We are obviously pleased with at least part of the verdict, and we are confident that the rest will ultimately be taken care of in post-trial motions or on appeal,” Craft said.
Painter’s 14-year tenure as commissioner ended Aug. 13, 2010, four days after Suire, his former assistant, complained to the state Office of Inspector General about Painter’s allegedly harassing behavior.
In an Aug. 16, 2010, application for a search warrant, IG investigator Shane Evans said Painter repeatedly requested Suire become romantically involved with him and became enraged when she ignored or refused him.
Painter has emphatically denied those allegations.
Evans said the search warrant was needed to seek evidence that Painter had stalked and harassed Suire. Investigators then seized a computer, laptop and three thumb drives from Painter’s office and vehicle.
Ten days later, on Aug. 26, 2010, Suire filed for a restraining order against Painter, claiming she feared for her life and had “no alternative but to resign” from ATC in late 2009 “due to the continuous and ongoing harassment, intimidation, abuse and stalking at the hands of Murphy Painter.”
Suire’s case was settled in 2011, when the state Department of Revenue, under which ATC falls, paid her $100,000.
Craft said Monday the jury’s decision in Painter’s federal defamation case makes no sense from a legal standpoint.
“Everything she told the OIG was contained in her lawsuit,” Craft said of Suire’s allegations against Painter. “So if it wasn’t defamatory for that purpose, it certainly can’t be defamatory for the purpose of her lawsuit.”
Craft also noted that the state settled Suire’s case, and a district court judge had found Painter in contempt for violating a restraining order that required him to stay away from Suire and her family.
Painter’s attorney, Al J. Robert Jr., said the jury’s decision was logical because Evans, the IG investigator, said he had used his own words, not Suire’s, in calling Painter’s alleged behavior “stalking” and “harassing” in the search warrant application. But it was Suire who used those words in a signed affidavit attached to her lawsuit, Robert said.
Robert said the jury verdict could strengthen Painter’s state court case for defamation against the OIG and other state officials “because the OIG’s own investigator is admitting he’s the one who chose to use the defamatory words.” That case is set for a hearing Nov. 19 before Judge Janice Clark, of the 19th Judicial District.
The OIG issued a scathing report in February 2011 alleging Painter may have sexually harassed Suire and also used his position as commissioner to illegally obtain information on Suire, Craft, judges, the governor’s staff, a former LSU quarterback, U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s wife and others more than 1,000 times over a five-year period.
A federal jury in December 2013 acquitted Painter on 29 counts of computer fraud and false statements to the FBI related to the OIG’s allegations.
Robert said the OIG “inexplicably” ignored an outside investigation that “determined Mr. Painter’s actions did not violate the Department’s Anti-Harassment Policy.”
“Four years ago, I told everyone that all of this was a bunch of lies and half-truths that were being used by the Governor’s Office to run me out of office,” Painter said. “There are undoubtedly a number of people who hoped that I would not have the courage and resources to fight so hard to clear my name for such a long time.”
How much money Painter may be awarded for the defamation will be decided during a later phase of the trial. Painter is seeking compensation for his termination as commissioner, loss of income and injury to his reputation.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.