Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand — the most powerful elected official in Louisiana's second-largest parish — is stepping down to take over the WWL Radio time slot once manned by Garland Robinette, he said in a bombshell announcement Tuesday.
The news comes just weeks after Robinette said he would retire from the station after 12 years there. Robinette hosted a show on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. before a bout with pneumonia caused a prolonged absence.
"I believe that I have been a credible leader of this organization," Normand said, announcing his decision, "and we've made a difference."
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WWL announced the move shortly after the press conference began, calling Normand an "extraordinary leader and a good man." Normand will officially retire on Aug. 31, and his first day on radio will be Sept. 11.
“We knew Garland's replacement had to be someone special. Someone with strong opinions, great intellect ... someone who earned the respect, not just of the citizens in our community, but leaders too,” said Diane Newman, WWL's operations and program director.
Normand said Chief Criminal Deputy Joe Lopinto will take over in the interim.
While rumors that Normand was stepping down after a decade on the job gained steam Monday night, the move came as a surprise in local political circles. A number of high-ranking members in that circle said they had seen Normand on Monday night and asked him about the rumors — only for him to dismiss them as silly.
Normand's announcement reverberated quickly across Jefferson Parish's political landscape. Several parish council members said they were caught off guard by the announcement.
"I am kind of in a little bit of shock," said Councilman Jack Rizzuto, who represents an east bank district. "I was at an endorsement meeting last night, and he didn't mention anything like this."
As powerful as Normand's office is, he appears set to do well in retirement.
His annual salary is more than $180,000; and under the state’s retirement system for sheriffs and judges, the starting point for what he would collect annually in retirement would be just below that amount.
Normand’s talk show host pay arrangement wasn’t disclosed.
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Normand began his law enforcement career in the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office and has received degrees from the University of New Orleans and Tulane University. He is also a graduate of the FBI National Academy.
The often-outspoken Normand succeeded the late Harry Lee in 2007, when he won 91 percent of the vote. He easily won re-election in 2011 and 2015 with 92 percent and 88 percent of the vote.
He has never been shy of sharing his feelings or using strong language in public settings to drive points home.
In May 2016, Normand went in front of a Senate committee to address a bill meant to impact "sanctuary cities," sharing his strong opposition of the bill before it was rejected.
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He attacked U.S. Sen. David Vitter during the gubernatorial race in 2015, helping to bolster the successful candidacy of rival John Bel Edwards.
Normand garnered national headlines after a press conference following the shooting death of local football star Joe McKnight. During the press conference, which was aired live on MSNBC, Normand read aloud from social media posts that contained deeply offensive language.
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Robinette, who said he plans to pursue painting in his retirement, lauded WWL's decision to hire Normand.
"He's an inspired choice,” Robinette said in a prepared statement. "I honestly thought there was no way they could pull it off... Newell will be a compelling host and a magnet for great guests. Everybody's going to want to be on that show. Everybody's going to listen. I know I will."
Normand's departure will come after 37 years at the Sheriff's Office. He denied the timing has anything to do with Craig Taffaro, his recently retired chief deputy, getting charged last week in New Orleans' federal courthouse with tax evasion and filing a false tax return.
"It's a coincidence at best," Normand said, explaining that he could have announced his retirement earlier but waited to get a number of details in order instead. "That's all it is. I doubt very seriously I would be taking a job in the media if (retiring) was connected to (Taffaro)."
For his part, Lopinto said his past as a law enforcement officer, an attorney and a state legislator have prepared him well for the challenge of succeeding Normand.
Lopinto was a patrolman and narcotics detective in the Sheriff's Office before getting his law degree at Loyola University, entering private practice and frequently representing the Sheriff's Offices of Jefferson and other parishes.
In 2008, he was elected to the District 80 seat in the House of Representatives, where he served as a Republican and was chairman of the criminal justice committee. He stepped down in 2016 and became the in-house legal counsel for the Sheriff's Office.
"Does that prepare me? I think the answer is yes," Lopinto said. "(Normand) has confidence in me, and I think I can do it."