Judge disqualifies St. James Parish sheriff’s candidate; Sheriff Willy Martin to get another term _lowres

Photo provided by St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin Jr. -- Herman and Nicole Stafford were apparently evicted from their Gramercy home Tuesday after they testified in state court Monday that they have rented the house the past seven years from owner Lester M. Ezidore. The judge announced Tuesday that he disqualified Ezidore as a candidate for St. James Parish sheriff after finding that he did not reside in the parish.

A state district judge disqualified a candidate Tuesday from the St. James Parish sheriff’s race after determining the man had rented out his Gramercy home for the past seven years while living in New Orleans.

The decision means Sheriff Willy Martin Jr. will serve another four-year term and will not stand in the Oct. 24 election because he has no other opponents.

But the victory for Martin came at an apparent cost to Lester M. Ezidore’s tenants, two key witnesses who bolstered prosecutors’ claims in a hearing Monday that their landlord, Ezidore, did not live in his longtime Gramercy home.

Martin said he visited the home of Herman Stafford and his wife, Nicole, at 241 S. Hickory St., Gramercy, on Tuesday and was disturbed to find an eviction notice on their front door, dated Monday, with the Staffords nowhere to be found.

Martin said he admired the honesty of the Staffords, who were subpoenaed to court Monday and clearly did not want to be caught in the middle of an election dispute involving their landlord.

“It’s not their fault they were put in this position, but they were honest people and they’re paying for their honesty,” Martin said.

Judge Jason Verdigets, of the 23rd Judicial District Court, handed down the ruling one day after a hearing in Convent at which Assistant District Attorney Bruce Mohon presented the Staffords’ testimony and pointed to numerous documents, including the Staffords’ Gramercy water bill, to suggest Ezidore did not live in St. James Parish.

“Mr. Ezidore has abandoned his former domicile in St. James. His only connection there in the last seven years is one rental property,” Verdigets found Tuesday.

Ezidore said Tuesday that he doesn’t plan to appeal the ruling.

“Well, everything is fine. I’m all right with it. I’ll let bygones be bygones. That’s it,” he said.

In an interview before the sheriff made his comments about the eviction notice Tuesday, Ezidore was asked what he felt about his tenants’ testifying against him Monday.

Ezidore said: “I’ll deal with that sooner or later.”

When told of Martin’s comments about the eviction in a follow-up call later on Tuesday night, Ezidore would not directly acknowledge he evicted the Staffords, though an eviction notice photographed by Martin bears Ezidore’s signature.

“If it’s on the door, it must be,” Ezidore said.

When asked if he felt the eviction was unfair and could be seen as retaliation for the Staffords’ testimony, he again declined to answer directly.

“You call it however you want, Cuz,” Ezidore said.

Martin said he is trying to reach the Staffords to let them know he is trying to assist them in finding a new home.

Ezidore, a tow truck driver and repo man who has run unsuccessfully for St. James Parish sheriff two times, was challenging Martin in the Oct. 24 election, but the candidacy sparked a complaint from Gramercy Mayor Steve Nosacka.

Nosacka said Ezidore did not pay the water bill for the house he owns on South Hickory but Herman Stafford did. When prosecutors presented the bill Monday, the first of many documents aimed at supporting prosecutors’ claims, the bill was in the Staffords’ name.

The South Hickory address was listed in Ezidore’s election qualification documents as his residence.

Herman Stafford further bolstered prosecutors’ arguments by testifying that he not only paid that bill but also, until a month ago, had paid all other bills at the house, as well as $700 per month in rent to live at South Hickory. The rent checks were mailed to Ezidore in New Orleans. Both Staffords also said Ezidore never ate, slept nor, with the exception of one instance several years ago, changed his clothes in the Gramercy home.

Under state law, a candidate for sheriff must have resided in Louisiana for two years and “actually domiciled” for at least one year in the parish where he or she qualified.

In a section of Verdigets’ ruling Tuesday explaining the legal framework used to determine the residency of candidates, he noted that they can have many residences but only one domicile. That one place also does not have to be a “habitual place of residence.”

Challenges to residency, the judge then noted, must bring enough evidence to show both where a candidate resides and his intent to remain there to overcome state law’s presumption to follow candidates’ view of what their domicile is.

Among the other documents Mohon brought forward Monday was a concealed gun permit application that listed Ezidore’s 7330 Shubrick Ave., New Orleans, address as his residence and his South Hickory home as his former residence.

A mid-2014 lawsuit that Ezidore filed also described him as being domiciled in Orleans Parish, a description he disputed Monday on the stand.

The judge also noted that Ezidore acknowledged on cross-examination that he had not slept at the house on South Hickory since he rented the home to Herman Stafford seven years ago but slept at his wife and brother-in-law’s home in New Orleans when he was not on the road.

While Ezidore’s attorney brought official documentation that still listed him living in St. James Parish, including his voter registration and homestead exemption, Verdigets remained unconvinced.

“While the Court does not take lightly the disqualification of a candidate, a domicile should be a fairly easy inquiry for the public at the time of an election and one’s domicile should not be a game of semantics or have to be put together like a puzzle or read like a mystery novel,” Verdigets wrote.

Meg Casper, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Secretary of State, said Monday that the office has been holding back on the printing of ballots where election challenges had been filed, including St. James.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.