The man challenging incumbent Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto in next month's election again accused Lopinto of lying about a recent controversy over campaign spying during a feisty public debate Thursday. 

Former Sheriff's Office Col. John Fortunato told members of the Westbank Business & Industry Association, which hosted the forum, that Lopinto's handling of the controversy suggested he isn't fit for office.

"It's all about trust," Fortunato said. "If my opponent can stand before the media and blatantly lie, what will he do when we're all not watching?"

Fortunato said he believed the sheriff's actions amounted to ethics violations. "You can't do that, sorry," Fortunato said, handing a shared microphone back to Lopinto. "You can't lie." 

Lopinto defended his response to the incident, in which Sheriff's Office deputies recovered a surveillance video of Fortunato meeting with two former colleagues last year at an Elmwood cafe. 

Lopinto pointed to his decision to release the findings of an internal affairs investigation on the incident even though he was not required by law to do so. That report contradicted the sheriff's public statements about the surveillance video, showing Lopinto actually had asked for a copy of the footage even though he initially told The New Orleans Advocate that his deputies retrieved it on their own initiative.  

"I never lied to anybody on that," Lopinto said. "I'm not going to let him twist my words — I mean, give me a break. The reality of it is other administrations would have sat there and buried it. Other administrations wouldn't have done an investigation." 

The exchange — following a question about whether the candidates perceived any "character issues" with their opponent — highlighted a spirited forum in which Lopinto sought to dismiss Fortunato as a relic of a bygone era in law enforcement.

He said Fortunato, despite his four decades of experience with the agency, lacks the support of Jefferson Parish deputies in part because so many of his longtime colleagues have moved on from the organization.  

"The people on the street that worked with Mr. Fortunato in the '70s retired 10 years ago," Lopinto said.  

The sheriff also likened Fortunato, the agency's longtime spokesman, to "Jared from Subway" and "Jennifer Garner from Capital One Bank." 

"You know what they have in common?" Lopinto asked the audience at the Timberlane Country Club in Gretna. "They've never been the CEO. The CEO is a lot bigger than just showing up on the crime scene and telling people what somebody else did." 

Fortunato portrayed Lopinto as a Johnny-come-lately, while Fortunato has worked closely with the agency's rank-and-file for "my entire life." Many of those deputies have been "chastised for staying in contact with me," Fortunato said.  

Fortunato also invoked Harry Lee, the former longtime Jefferson Parish sheriff, calling Lee his mentor. He slammed Lee's successor, Newell Normand, who tapped Lopinto to serve as chief deputy shortly before Normand retired last summer to take a job as a WWL radio talk show host. Lopinto, a former deputy and state lawmaker, had previously worked as an attorney for the Sheriff's Office. 

"I've stayed in close contact" with deputies, said Fortunato, who retired last year to run against Lopinto. "I saw the morale decline over the last seven years in this organization" under Normand. 

The candidates also sparred over their visions for further reducing crime in Jefferson Parish, which has recorded historic lows in violent crime in recent years. 

Fortunato said he would increase the agency's community policing efforts, citing what he said is a growing mistrust of law enforcement. 

"I think it's important that everybody understand that we need to rebuild our communities," Fortunato said. "Community policing today is all about making sure you rebuild those bonds and make sure that everybody knows that the police are there to help them." 

Lopinto dismissed that proposal as antiquated, saying that "the '90s is not where we want to go back to." He said he intends to use the limited amount of discretionary funds in the agency's budget to upgrade its records system and improve its digital forensics unit. 

"The drug dealers aren't fighting over territories anymore," Lopinto said. "I'm not going to tell you I'm going to have a whole bunch of people in community policing." 

The election is March 24. 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.