Kenny Matassa _lowres

Advocate staff file photo -- Kenny Matassa

Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa asked a state district court on Thursday to throw out his attempted election bribery charge because the man at the center of the allegations wasn't qualified to be a candidate in last year's election.

Prosecutors have accused Matassa and his longtime friend Olin Berthelot of trying to bribe A. Wayne Lawson to drop out of a Gonzales City Council race in November, charging the two under a state law that prohibits such behind-the-scenes deals.

In the motion to quash the indictment brought by defense attorney Lewis Unglesby, Matassa attacks Lawson's eligibility as a candidate in last year's election. In the court papers, Unglesby also cites Lawson's past due campaign fees and failure to be domiciled in Gonzales within a year of qualifying.

Matassa and Berthelot were recorded by Lawson offering him cash last year to repair his food truck trailer and a parish job if he would drop out of the race. Neither man has disputed they were caught on tape but say the conversation has been misinterpreted and that Lawson was being offered a loan and some unrelated political advice.  

Matassa's motion alleges that Lawson owed $960 in ethics fees for filing campaign finance reports late from campaigns in 1999 and 2003. Matassa's motion claims that Lawson was "never qualified" as a candidate because the fees were outstanding and he had filed "a false public record" when he submitted his notice of candidacy, saying he did not owe any campaign fees.

"Lawson is never a person who meets that definition (of a candidate). He is never qualified to be a candidate and he never takes the actions necessary to be qualified," the motion says.

Despite Matassa's motion, Lawson's candidacy wasn't challenged last year. In the Nov. 8 election, incumbent Councilman Neal Bourque beat Lawson, 61 percent to 39 percent.

Under state law, a challenge to someone's candidacy must be filed within seven days after qualifying. The last day to qualify for the Gonzales City Council race was July 22, 2016. 

Unglesby said the fact that there was no challenge to Lawson's candidacy doesn't affect whether Lawson was a qualified candidate for the purposes of the bribery statute.

"The legal meaning of 'candidate' is what applies, not whether or not you're a candidate who was challenged, but were you in reality a legal candidate," as defined by the statute, Unglesby said.

Unglesby asked Judge Jason Verdigets, of the 23rd Judicial District, to hear the motion Oct. 10. Among the witnesses expected to be called is R. Gray Sexton, the former longtime administrator for the state Board of Ethics. In an affidavit attached with the court papers, Sexton opined that Lawson did not meet the qualifications of office and so Matassa could not have violated the bribery statute.    

Assistant Attorney General Jeff Traylor, who is prosecuting Matassa and Berthelot, declined to comment Thursday. Ruth Wisher, spokeswoman for Attorney General Jeff Landry, said his office would refrain from commenting on an ongoing prosecution. A call to Lawson's cellphone Thursday also was not returned.

Unglesby's motion came three days after Verdigets filed an order rejecting Matassa and Berthelot's bid to force prosecutors to provide more information about their theory of the bribery allegation. Verdigets found that the prosecutor's past disclosures of investigative and other reports were sufficient for Matassa and Berthelot to mount a defense. Both men have pleaded not guilty to the charges.   

In addition to the ethics fees, Matassa also claims in his motion that Lawson wasn't domiciled in Gonzales at least a year before he filed candidacy papers on July 21, 2016, for the City Council race later that fall. 

As evidence, Matassa points to an East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's report that, the motion says, lists Lawson and his wife as living in an apartment on George O'Neal Road in Baton Rouge in February 2016, five months before Lawson qualified for the race in Gonzales. Lawson listed a Gonzales address on his candidacy papers last year. 

Matassa's motion notes that candidates for election must be domiciled in the municipality in which he or she is running at least a year beforehand and the Gonzales race isn't the first time he wasn't domiciled in the district in which he was running.

"Lawson has a history of qualifying for office with addresses that do not reflect his residence," the motion says.

The sheriff's report, which was attached to the motion Thursday, says Lawson was arrested on burglary and theft counts Feb. 3, 2016, over bowling balls and bowling ball bags and shoes stolen from an open garage.

Lawson, who returned some of the stolen items nearly two weeks after his arrest, pleaded guilty in December to the reduced misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief. As part of the deal, the conviction was set aside in May after Lawson completed a probationary period.  

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.