Former Pearl River mayor pleads guilty, gets probation on corruption charges _lowres

Pearl River Mayor James Lavigne, left and Town Clerk Diane Bennett Hollie

This was not the same man who told a local TV reporter to kiss his ass, who belittled his critics in an official reply to the state Legislative Auditor’s Office’s findings of wrongdoing or who told the public that he would never be found guilty of the corruption charges leveled at him.

Monday, all that was left was 75-year-old former Pearl River Mayor James Lavigne, appearing before Judge Raymond Childress in a St. Tammany Parish courtroom with an oxygen tube over his ears and under his nose, connected to a pump in a bag at his waist.

Standing on unsteady feet in a row of suspects lined up to admit their crimes, he said he understood that by pleading guilty to five counts of theft, malfeasance and unauthorized use of a movable, he was waiving certain constitutional rights.

Lavigne’s brief moments in court Monday were the culmination of more than a year of travail for the former six-term mayor and for Pearl River’s former town clerk, Dianne Bennett Hollie, both of whom pleaded guilty this month to various counts of misuse of town funds.

Monday’s plea deal saw Lavigne’s total counts reduced from seven to five. Remaining were two felony counts, one for malfeasance in office and one for theft of between $500 and $1,500. He also pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors, including theft and two counts of unauthorized use of a movable.

Childress sentenced Lavigne to five years’ probation on each of the felonies and a fine of $500. For the misdemeanors, he got an extra two years of probation, but all the sentences are to run concurrently, so barring any further encounters with the law, he should finish his probation around the time he turns 80.

Several times during the proceedings, Lavigne’s attorney, Kevin McNary, had to repeat the judge’s instructions loudly into Lavigne’s ear. After it was over, he remained in the courtroom to be fingerprinted and to finish some paperwork.

After he left the courthouse, he fumbled with his keys and cursed as he tried to get into his car with a TV camera in his face, then cast a baleful eye at the gathered media before driving away.

McNary said Lavigne was the victim of changing times and political intrigue.

“Politics changed around him,” McNary said, adding that when Lavigne started as mayor, a handshake was often enough to cement a deal. “He feels there were some political interests that wanted him out.”

Pearl River is trying to move on, with a new mayor eager to distance himself from his predecessor. But some habits may be hard to shake: A Sheriff’s Office spokesman confirmed Monday that detectives are investigating whether another town clerk may have taken public funds.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.