As a furor erupted in recent days over allegations that U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise had addressed a white nationalist convention in 2002, Kenny Knight, the David Duke aide who had invited him to speak, began to reshape his story to fit a more innocuous narrative. Scalise, he said, had actually addressed the Jefferson Heights Civic Association, a neighborhood group Knight headed that was using the same space at a Metairie Best Western booked for the white-nationalist conference in the hours before the day’s main events got underway.
But now that narrative — one Scalise has never put forth — seems to be falling apart. Jefferson Heights has never had its own neighborhood group, the head of the civic association that includes the avenue said Tuesday. And Knight, who had been a neighbor of Scalise’s on the street, may not even have lived in that neighborhood by the time of the conference.
That revelation creates a more complicated picture for the most ardent defenders of the Metairie Republican, who is expected to soon be re-elected as majority whip, the third-highest position in the House.
While Scalise has never attempted to deny speaking to a meeting of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization — considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — many of his supporters have seized on Knight’s statements to make the case that Scalise had been unfairly smeared.
The area that includes Jefferson Heights Avenue, and that encompasses all of what would be its neighborhood association, has always been a part of the Suburban Terrace Civic Association, said Kenny Lassalle, who has been president of the organization since 1999.
“To my knowledge, it’s never existed,” Lassalle said of the neighborhood group Knight claimed to head.
Multiple people familiar with Jefferson Parish’s myriad civic associations, including past presidents of the Civic League of East Jefferson, also have said over the past week that they had never heard of such a group. And the organization does not appear on the parish’s list of neighborhood groups, an informal but lengthy resource on the parish’s website.
A man who answered Knight’s cellphone on Tuesday told a reporter he had the wrong number.
Scalise became embroiled in controversy last week after liberal blogger Lamar White called attention to a post on Stormfront, a white nationalist website, noting that in 2002, Scalise, then a state representative, had appeared before a EURO conference in Metairie. The Stormfront poster said Scalise spoke about fiscal issues and did not say he made any comments about race.
Scalise has never denied speaking to EURO, though he initially said he did not recall attending the meeting. But his final public statement on the matter implicitly admitted that he had made the appearance. In it, Scalise did not try to suggest that he had been speaking to a different organization or argue that he had been told he would address a civic association, as Knight has claimed in an apparent effort to defend Scalise.
“Twelve years ago, I spoke to many different Louisiana groups as a state representative, trying to build support for legislation that focused on cutting wasteful state spending, eliminating government corruption and stopping tax hikes,” Scalise said in an emailed statement last week. “One of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn. It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold. I am very disappointed that anyone would try to infer otherwise for political gain.”
Asked for comment Tuesday, Scalise’s spokesman referred back to the office’s previous statements.
Knight has offered several different versions of what happened in 2002. While he initially told The Washington Post that Scalise was at the meeting before it really kicked off, Knight later claimed in a widely cited post on Slate that he had actually invited Scalise to speak to the Jefferson Heights Civic Association. Knight said he decided to hold the group’s meeting at the same hotel on the same day as the EURO conference because he had already booked the space.
As the dustup over Scalise’s appearance became a national story, many commentators argued that Knight’s comments showed there was no truth to White’s initial post.
At the time of the EURO conference, the Suburban Terrace association covered the area near the Mississippi River from Jefferson Playground past Jefferson Heights Avenue. Both Scalise and Knight lived in the area at the time.
Lassalle, the head of the association, had been friendly with Scalise, but the two had a falling-out after Lassalle became a member of the parish’s Democratic Executive Committee, Lassalle said. Though the two are no longer friends, Lassalle said Tuesday that he finds it hard to believe Scalise would knowingly talk to a hate group.
Knight proved to be a difficult member of the neighborhood association, Lassalle said. In addition to falsely claiming on occasion that he was in charge of the group even though he was never in a position of leadership, Knight also complained about black families moving into the neighborhood, Lassalle said.
When one African-American family moved in across the street, Knight used a racial epithet and tried to build support for pressuring the family to leave the neighborhood, Lassalle said.
“Needless to say, we were all relieved when he stopped coming around,” he said. By the time of the conference, Knight may not even have been a resident of that area. Three years earlier, his candidacy for a seat on the Jefferson Parish Council had been tossed out because he was living miles away from Jefferson Heights, on Helios Avenue. Lassalle said Knight’s ex-wife continued to live at the Jefferson Heights address.
The claim that the neighborhood group was associated with EURO has created problems for Lassalle, who said he has received calls from people who notice the two men share the same first name and assume he was tied in with Duke and organized a white nationalist conference.
With the exception of Knight, he said, there have been no problems with race relations in the neighborhood.
“We’ve never had a lot of black people in the neighborhood, but we’ve had a few, and there’s never been a problem,” Lassalle said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.