GONZALES — The Louisiana Attorney General's Office will not seek to recuse the entire bench of the 23rd Judicial District Court from the election bribery trial of Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa.
A spokeswoman for state Attorney General Jeff Landry confirmed the course correction in legal strategy Thursday, eight days after the top state prosecutor in the case said the office was "strongly considering" just such a move over Matassa’s work on building a new parish courthouse.
"Our office is not filing a recusal in this matter," said Ruth Wisher, spokeswoman for Landry.
Wisher did not offer a reason for the step. But the mere prospect of recusing the district judges has already prevented Matassa from his scheduled trial later this month and, for now, positions his co-defendant, Olin Berthelot, to be tried first.
Defense attorney Lewis Unglesby has repeatedly charged that Matassa’s prosecution on a previously unused election law violation was pure politics and had been pushing for an early trial date. He said Thursday his client wants his day in court.
"Kenny Matassa is an innocent man trying to get to court and continues to persist in efforts to rectify the mistake of this indictment," Unglesby said.
Matassa and Gonzales businessman Olin Berthelot have been accused of trying to bribe a 2016 candidate for Gonzales City Council to drop out of the race.
Matassa and Berthelot are accused of offering A. Wayne 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.
The fact the state Attorney General’s office was even considering recusal came out Jan. 24 after attorneys had met with Judge Thomas Kliebert Jr. of the 23rd Judicial District for a closed-door status conference.
The judge emerged from the meeting and announced to the courtroom that the superiors of Assistant Attorney General Jeff Traylor were considering the recusal motion. The judge vacated a Feb. 21 trial date and gave prosecutors five days to file the recusal motion, but one had not been filed as of Thursday.
Though not discussed in court last month, Traylor said afterward that state prosecutors were strongly considering the recusal motion because of Matassa's ongoing involvement in the design and construction of a new parish courthouse in Gonzales.
Jason Verdigets, a 23rd Judicial District jurist who is the lead judge on the courthouse project and who had previously handled both Matassa’s and Berthelot’s cases, already recused himself over the issue in December.
Wisher said the next court date for Matassa is Feb. 27, but a new trial date has not been set. Berthelot remains set for trial on March 13.