Smoke-filled rooms are passé. These days it's much more common to run into local pols strategizing, dishing or just catching up over a cup of joe. And in Jefferson Parish, for some reason, the odds that those politicians might be recorded doing so are inordinately high.
In 2015, former Sheriff Newell Normand spotted a paid investigator for then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter's gubernatorial campaign electronically eavesdropping on his morning coffee klatch at Royal Blend in Old Metairie. The guy seemed to have one of Normand's companions, not the sheriff himself, in his sights. But that didn't stop Norman, a longtime Vitter foe who was backing John Bel Edwards, from confronting him and having him arrested after he fled onto private residential property (no formal charges were ever filed).
Now comes news that several current deputies sought and received surveillance footage of John Fortunato, Normand's longtime spokesman and now a candidate for the top job against interim Sheriff Joe Lopinto, meeting at an Elmwood PJ's with two former top deputies.
What they heard, or thought they heard, will likely remain among them. Lopinto said that he didn't authorize his underlings, who apparently happened upon Fortunato and company on their lunch break, to request the video from the shop's owners. He also said that they used a personal connection, not a badge, to acquire the footage.
"I couldn't care less what they were talking about," Lopinto said of the October incident. "But if one of my employees went over there trying to help my campaign, they shouldn't have gone. I expect more from my deputies. I expect them to know better."
For his part, Fortunato said he doubts that Lopinto was in the dark.
"He can't continue to use the resources, manpower and equipment of the JPSO for his own political gain," he said.
As discipline, Lopinto said the deputies will be counseled. So as these things go, they got off relatively easy, at least compared to that hapless investigator from the Vitter campaign.
As for Fortunato, or anyone else contemplating becoming sheriff of Jefferson Parish, maybe this would be a good time to lay off the caffeine.