NO.qualify3.010618

Another election, another case of political shenanigans inside a Jefferson Parish coffeehouse. 

Jefferson Sheriff Joe Lopinto said Tuesday that three of his deputies are under investigation for improperly obtaining surveillance footage from an Elmwood cafe that showed John Fortunato — Lopinto's chief opponent in the March 24 primary — meeting with two other longtime lawmen who recently retired from the Sheriff's Office.

The deputies apparently went to the PJ's on their lunch break and of their own volition, Lopinto said, but they nevertheless will be "counseled" for their actions.

The sheriff said his investigators never opened a criminal inquiry into Fortunato's meeting, adding that he still has not seen a copy of the surveillance video and doesn't "need it" in his campaign. 

"I couldn't care less what they were talking about," Lopinto said of the October coffee klatch. "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." 

The incident has prompted cries of foul play in an increasingly bitter campaign. Fortunato, a longtime Sheriff's Office spokesman who retired last year to challenge Lopinto, said he doubted the sheriff's claim that he had been in the dark about the deputies obtaining the video.

The footage apparently showed Fortunato meeting with former chief deputies Walter "Tom" Gorman and John Thevenot. It's not clear whether the video included audio.    

"The interim sheriff should be more concerned with the safety and well-being of Jefferson Parish than worrying about three former deputies getting together to talk about everything from football to family," Fortunato said. "He can't continue to use the resources, manpower and equipment of the JPSO for his own political gain." 

The episode recalls a coffee shop caper on the eve of Louisiana's gubernatorial election in 2015, in which a private investigator hired by David Vitter, then a U.S. senator, was caught spying on then-Jefferson Sheriff Newell Normand and several of his political associates inside the Royal Blend coffeehouse on Metairie Road.

The investigator, Robert Frenzel, was arrested — though never formally charged — following a testy confrontation with Normand and a foot chase through Old Metairie. 

By contrast, the more recent incident has not prompted any arrests, and Lopinto said it does not appear the deputies under internal investigation acted in a law-enforcement capacity in recovering the video. They would be facing more serious consequences had they "used their badge" rather than personal connections to obtain the footage, he said. 

The sheriff said one of the deputies involved is a friend of the owner of the coffee shop, who did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday. That deputy apparently was unable to copy the footage himself, Lopinto said, and called upon two "crime-scene guys who know how to download those things."   

The sheriff said Tuesday he could not recall the names of the deputies under investigation, adding that they "are not my inside operatives." He said he plans to release the internal affairs file once the investigation is complete.  

Lopinto, who took office last summer after Normand's unexpected retirement, said he opened the inquiry in response to "rumors" going around the Sheriff's Office and a public records request the agency received concerning the video. 

One element of the incident that remains unclear is why the deputies believed the footage would be beneficial to Lopinto's campaign. The meeting among Fortunato and the retired chief deputies came at a time when a number of rumors were circulating about Gorman attempting a return to the department.

Lopinto noted that Gorman has repeatedly criticized him on Facebook. But the sheriff insisted that he was not interested in the substance of Gorman's conversations with Fortunato. 

Gorman, in an interview Tuesday, said there was "nothing secretive or clandestine" about the October meeting. He could not recall exactly what was discussed but said Fortunato asked him about morale within the agency and sought advice on changes he might make within the agency if elected.  

"We weren't attempting or intending to commit any crimes at PJ's," Gorman said. "We were chatting about the election and what was going on in our lives."

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.