Athletic scholarships can go well beyond degree _lowres

This June 2, 2013, file photo shows actor Steven Seagal looking on as he waits for a news conference of U.S. Congressional delegation to Russia in U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia. The actor told KNXV-TV that he is considering a shot at Arizona's highest office and has had a talk about the bid with the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

It stands to reason that early polls in the Jefferson Parish sheriff's race gave John Fortunato the lead, because it was all about name recognition and everyone had seen him on TV.

As Sheriff's Office spokesman for three decades, he had attained the rank of colonel before quitting to run for election.

He even appeared on foreign TV screens in a TV reality series shot in Jefferson Parish starring Steven Seagal as an honorary deputy. Fortunato's election opponent, interim Sheriff Joseph Lopinto, cannot possibly match that. There is nothing in his résumé half so cheesy as “Steven Seagal; Lawman.”

The outgoing sheriff who last year appointed Lopinto to take his place, Newell Normand, gave the go-ahead for the show in 2009. A year later Normand closed it down after Kayden Nguyen, hired out of California as a personal assistant to Seagal during filming, alleged that the real plan was to make her one of his sex slaves in Lafitte.

That, if true, would have been devastating for Fortunato, since a cop who didn't know his showbiz sidekick maintained a harem down the bayou would hardly be cut out for the top job. A cop who did know but didn't tell would be guilty of misprision.

In fact, Nguyen's allegation was distinctly fishy. If some 6-foot, 4-inch Hollywood martial-arts hunk tried to make you a sex slave, wouldn't you file a criminal complaint? Yeah, me too.

Normand said that JPSO could be trusted to deal fairly with one of its own, but, if Nguyen had any doubts, she should go to the FBI. She declined to go the criminal route, instead commencing a $1 million civil action against Seagal in Los Angeles. After a couple of months, she dropped her suit without explanation.

That did not instill confidence in her accusations, but they were enough for Normand to cancel the show and Seagal quit as an unpaid deputy. Without a respectable sponsor in law enforcement, there was only one thing for Seagal to do. Right. He teamed up with Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. After a long career suppressing civil rights, Arpaio called himself “America's toughest sheriff.” The Arizona version of the Seagal show lasted only one season.

Seagal became a reserve deputy at the invitation of Harry Lee, who was sheriff from 1980 until his death in 2007 and liked to hobnob with celebrities. Lee, a crack shot himself, reportedly admired Seagal's marksmanship and fighting abilities.

When Normand, top aide to Lee, was elected to succeed him, he approved the TV show for its “good educational value” and soon pronounced it a success. People all over this country and others not only enjoyed “the realism it depicts,” Normand said, “but “the lighter side of the show as well, with some of the activities that Steven has engaged in while here.” This was long before Nguyen alleged Seagal kept a couple of Russian girls as sex toys in Lafitte.

Seagal is a non-issue in the upcoming election, except that the extra exposure his reality series afforded Fortunato helped make him far and away the more familiar face in the early stages of the campaign. “Experience matters” is Fortunato's slogan and he had 46 years with JPSO before he quit. But that experience is more remarkable for its length than its variety, since his role has not changed since he was made department spokesman in 1986. Still, he rose through the ranks, so he has presumably deployed the news release with great valor in the fight against crime.

That experience in knocking out news releases came in mighty handy when Lopinto denied that he had instructed deputies to get hold of a private surveillance video of a coffee-shop tête-à-tête Fortunato held with a couple of backers. That was a rookie error. As an attorney and former state legislator, Lopinto should know by now that a politician who cherishes his reputation for integrity only lies when he can't be found out. Fortunato duly pounced, assuring every media outlet in town that, as sheriff, he would fire anyone guilty of such a whopper.

But he'd have to win the election first, and, as attention switches to the candidates' qualifications, a well-educated incumbent might have an advantage over a retired mouthpiece with a high school diploma.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com.

Fortunato and Lopinto pursue different strategies to hoped-for victory in Jefferson sheriff race