Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne on Monday criticized challenger Billy Nungesser for ducking recent candidate forums, saying that voters should be able to judge the candidates side-by-side.

“He should come out from behind the advice of his political consultant and face me,” Dardenne told the Press Club of Baton Rouge, where Nungesser was a no-show.

“His chain is being yanked now by Sen. Vitter,” Dardenne said, referring to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who has come out in support of Nungesser.

Later Monday, Nungesser said he is not afraid to meet Dardenne, nor is he avoiding him. Nungesser said he has attended other meetings where Dardenne did not participate.

“He’ll have his day,” said Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish.

He said he plans to participate in an upcoming League of Women Voters forum and others before the Oct. 22 election.

Dardenne and Nungesser are both Republicans.

Nungesser originally agreed to the Press Club event as well as one Friday, Sept. 23, sponsored by the Pachyderms of Greater Baton Rouge. He bowed out, citing “scheduling conflicts.”

With Nungesser absent, Dardenne posed questions he said Nungesser ought to be asked as he campaigns involving:

e_SBlt A $2,400 political contribution he made to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. — “the most liberal (U.S.) senator” when Nungesser calls himself the “true conservative” in the race.

e_SBlt A federal investigation into post-Katrina spending in Plaquemines Parish.

e_SBlt A dozen lawsuits by parish councilmen over his failure to release public records.

e_SBlt More than a $100,000 unpaid tax lien on a Nungesser-related business.

• A $175,000 expenditure for a video promoting Plaquemines Parish which, Dardenne said, hasn’t been seen.

In a telephone interview later Monday, Nungesser called Dardenne “a coward and a liar.”

Nungesser said he made the contribution to Boxer at a time when the state was seeking hurricane recovery funding and Boxer chaired an influential committee.

Nungesser said he welcomed the federal investigation. He also said he would post online every dollar spent by Plaquemines Parish for the last 10 years beginning Jan. 1.

The tax lien dates back to the Hurricane Katrina days and involves the filing of W-2 employer forms for one of his companies, Nungesser said. “This situation was cleared up years ago and the lien is in the process of being removed by the IRS,” Nungesser said.

Nungesser said Plaquemines Sheriff Jiff Hingle is responsible for the $175,000 video. He said he opposed it.

Before the lunchtime Press Club meeting, Nungesser issued a statement calling Dardenne a “career politician” who accepted a $30,000 pay raise and voted to give himself lifetime health-care benefits.

Dardenne quoted two New Orleans media stories as his source for Nungesser’s connection to the video.

As for Nungesser’s charges against him, Dardenne said: “Everything they say is a lie or a mischaracterization.”

The Legislature passed a $30,000 pay raise for statewide elected officials in 2007 that Dardenne said he had nothing to do with. He was secretary of state at the time.

As a legislator, Dardenne said he voted for a bill that he found out later included the lifetime health-care benefit. He said he, like others, encouraged Gov. Kathleen Blanco to veto the bill, which she “rightfully did.”

He said he was not a member of the health-care system involved.