The campaign to serve as top prosecutor for East and West Feliciana parishes has turned into a tough, bitter battle that has a well-funded, 12-year incumbent squaring off against an aggressive challenger determined to unseat him.
The incumbent district attorney, Sam D’Aquilla, is opposed by fellow Democrat David Opperman, a 52-year-old attorney with experience as an assistant prosecutor.
D’Aquilla started his legal career in 1993. He ran for office in 2002, becoming district attorney for the 20th Judicial District, which includes both West and East Feliciana parishes.
Opperman has worked at various law firms since 1994 and has served as an assistant district attorney for the 1st, 19th and 7th Judicial Districts.
D’Aquilla is the only district attorney in the Baton Rouge metro region facing a challenger to retain his position, and he’s been the subject of anonymous attacks on the Internet.
In August, shortly before the qualifying period ended for the Nov. 4 general election, an anonymous person created a website mocking D’Aquilla and accusing him of using his position to grant special legal favors for his friends.
D’Aquilla complained about the site to the state Attorney General’s Office, which had the owner of the website remove the content and pay the state $2,500 as part of a voluntary agreement for violating Louisiana trade and commerce laws.
According to an “assurance of voluntary compliance” filed Sept. 17 in the 19th Judicial District Court, an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office revealed that the website was created by Robert Reinhardt, a former West Feliciana Parish employee previously prosecuted by the DA’s Office.
Opperman acknowledged that Reinhardt, the former information technology director for West Feliciana Parish, is one of his friends and a staunch supporter. But Opperman said he had nothing to do with the website mocking D’Aquilla.
Reinhardt was fired and arrested in 2012 on counts of malfeasance in office, felony theft by use of an access card and violating the state public bid law after an investigation determined he converted Police Jury credit card “reward points” to his personal use.
Later that year, he pleaded no contest to an amended charge of unauthorized use of an access card.
D’Aquilla criticized Opperman and his supporters for engaging in what he called a negative campaign. He said he has no intention of engaging in similar negative tactics.
“No one on my side has said any negative things about my opponent,” D’Aquilla said. “I feel voters know me. And they know the type of people that are putting that stuff out there.”
Opperman sought to distance himself from any negative campaigning.
“I cannot stand negative campaigning; I believe strongly in running on your own merit,” he said.
“I just want folks to know I am a turn-key, trial-ready prosecutor. I can walk in tomorrow and handle any case in that office.”
D’Aquilla has some detractors, and the West Feliciana Parish Democratic Party decided to endorse Opperman over the incumbent when choosing between the two Democrats.
In its endorsement of Opperman, the group said, “We do not want a district attorney who will use his office for personal gain or one who will target his enemies for prosecution and let his political friends escape accountability.”
D’Aquilla, who declined to respond to the party’s endorsement of Opperman, said the endorsements he’s received from the seven police chiefs in the 20th JDC and the Greater Baton Rouge AFL-CIO as proof the District Attorney’s Office has done its job under his leadership.
He pointed to his office’s recent accomplishment of securing a $625,000 grant to support the East Feliciana Parish Drug and Alcohol Awareness Council’s efforts toward preventing substance abuse among youth.
D’Aquilla also said that under his tutelage, his office has become more of a presence in the local school systems. Outreach in the community and school systems are two things D’Aquilla hopes to continue doing if re-elected.
“I think it’s important to be in kids’ lives early. We don’t want them to think we’re this big bad monster in the closet that’s waiting for them to mess up,” he said. “It’s good to relate to them, get in their lives early.”
Opperman said that if he’s elected he wants to introduce a version of the anti-gang initiative “Operation Ceasefire” in West and East Feliciana, and eliminate abuse of plea bargains and pretrial diversion. He also promises to apply the law fairly.
“I think I have more experience than Sam when it comes to prosecuting cases,” Opperman said.
The incumbent enjoys a clear advantage on the campaign fundraising front, with $103,405 cash on hand as of Sept. 25 compared with the $1,290 Opperman had in the bank for his campaign.
The challenger said he’s not concerned.
“Money doesn’t buy wins,” Opperman said. “I hope this will come down to a person’s reputation and character.”
According to the latest campaign finance reports, Opperman has raised $6,760 in campaign contributions so far this election. He had already spent more than $5,000 on signs and political advertisements.
D’Aquilla has spent nearly $16,000 so far in his campaign for re-election, according to his report, but raised $45,587 this summer. He has a war chest of more than $100,000 to spend in the final leg of the campaign.
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.