When Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope was asked to release public records that showed him involved in wrongdoing, he decided to stall, waiting for 173 days — long past the legal limit — to respond to the records request.
Now, 15th Judicial District Court Judge Jules Edwards has decided to teach Pope a lesson, giving him a jail sentence and thousands of dollars in penalties for flouting the state’s public records law.
We hope Edwards’ judicial philosophy catches on. It’s desperately needed in an era when officials routinely flout public records laws meant to hold them accountable, leaving citizens with little means to fight back.
Pope got in hot water when The Independent, a Lafayette publication, asked him for copies of emails from his agency computer that showed how he used public resources to aid Scott Police Chief Chad Leger’s unsuccessful campaign for Lafayette Parish sheriff.
Pope balked, and when the matter went to court, he testified under oath that no such emails existed. But after stonewalling, Pope produced copies of some relevant emails. A related records request to the parish government revealed Pope’s attempt to erase compromising emails, another clear violation of the law.
Edwards found Pope guilty of contempt of court, sentenced him to 30 days in jail, then suspended all but seven days of his sentence. The judge also is allowing Pope to serve his weeklong jail sentence under house arrest. He ordered Pope to perform 173 hours of instruction on public records law, one hour for each day he refused to turn over his records.
That’s too cushy a deal when a city marshal flagrantly violates the very law he’s sworn to uphold, but the financial consequences imposed by Edwards are formidable.
Pope has been ordered to pay $18,800 in penalties, along with more than $77,900 in attorney fees and court costs from The Independent’s suit against Pope.
The judge said evidence produced by the suit serves as possible grounds to investigate Pope for perjury and malfeasance in office. We hope Keith Stutes, the district attorney serving Lafayette, takes Edwards’ lead.
At the very least, Pope is guilty of illegally shielding public records, an offense that too often leads to, at most, a slap on the wrist for offenders.
Mounting a legal challenge to officials who refuse to turn over public records can be expensive and time-consuming, pitting crusader Davids against Goliath government agencies with plenty of resources to prevail.
In holding Pope’s feet to the fire, Edwards has helped tipped the scales of justice toward accountability.
We hope his ruling makes other public officials think twice before hiding records that belong to the public, not personal fiefdoms.