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Ascension Parish presidential candidate Murphy Painter participates in a forum in the Ascension Parish council chambers Wednesday Sept. 25, 2019, in Gonzales, La.

GONZALES — The Louisiana Supreme Court has named a retired Lafourche Parish judge to preside in former Ascension Parish President candidate Murphy Painter's damages and conspiracy lawsuit against the current parish president, district attorney and others over a news account that Painter alleges damaged his 2019 election bid.

Former 17th Judicial District Judge A. Bruce Simpson will take over the litigation from Jason Verdigets, chief judge of the Ascension Parish judicial district who was recently given the case after another local judge recused himself.

Simpson, a native of Lockport, was a judge for 21 years in Lafourche until his retirement in 2014 and has handled his share of high-profile, politically tinged cases, first as a sitting judge and more recently in retirement. 

Those cases include the late 1990s litigation over oil field waste pits near the Lafourche community of Grand Bois, a high-profile environmental case that drew national media attention. Simpson is currently presiding over the aggravated rape and sex crimes case against former longtime St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain.

Painter, a former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control commissioner and top Ascension law enforcement official, has accused a handful of local officials and businesses of being a part of a conspiracy to secretly record him and publicize false allegations about him, as the 2019 runoff for parish president was kicking off. He had been accused of covering up a series of child rapes in the early 1990s, though he was no longer Ascension's chief sheriff's deputy then. He quit the race and his opponent was declared the winner.

The defendants have denied the allegations and charged that Painter's claims are speculative dot-connecting without a factual basis. The defendants include the Pelican Post news website and its editor, who published the original account, and current Parish President Clint Cointment and District Attorney Ricky Babin, whom Painter accuses of a role in the alleged scheme.

Last month, Painter had asked the Supreme Court to remove the entire 23rd Judicial District bench in Ascension Parish over a variety of alleged conflicts, as another motion to recuse sat before newly seated Judge Steven Tureau.

But the high court did not issue its Jan. 27 order based on Painter's recusal motion, but the effect of the decision is the same: no judge in the 23rd JDC will hear Painter's case.

Citing "plenary powers" under the state Constitution to assign judges, the court named Simpson for reasons that weren't stated and then declared Painter's request moot.

Robert Gunn, spokesman for the Supreme Court, said Tuesday he had no other "information beyond that which is in the order."

Verdigets' office declined to comment.

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"They did what was necessary to ensure that due process was provided to all," Kim Segura Landry, Painter's attorney, said Tuesday. 

Last month the defendants in the suit had opposed Painter's Supreme Court motion to remove the Ascension bench as unsupported and premature because, at the time it was filed, Tureau had yet not ruled on his own removal.

On Tuesday, Landry said she was forced to file with the Supreme Court because, she claimed, Tureau had been improperly slow-walking the recusal motion before him by holding a telephone conference and a later status conference, instead of immediately acting to deny the motion or to call a hearing on his removal, as the law requires. Tureau couldn't immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Tureau did end up recusing himself at the status conference because he and his family own land jointly with Cointment and his family, though not for the reasons cited by Painter.

By naming Simpson to preside over the case, the high court returns an out-of-parish judge to the litigation involving the local political heavyweights.

Judge Emile R. St. Pierre, a retired St. Charles Parish judge, had been handling the lawsuit since it was filed in October. He had been filling in for former Judge Jessie LeBlanc, who resigned last February.

Tureau replaced St. Pierre after taking office last month following his election last fall to LeBlanc's old seat, until the new judge's recusal.

Gonzales lawyer Tim Pujol, who is representing Cointment, said he was happy with the Simpson appointment. Tyler Cavalier, spokesman for Babin, declined to comment. 

Painter withdrew from the November 2019 election runoff against Cointment after news accounts of Painter's excerpted, recorded comments purportedly about the coverup allegations came to light in the Pelican Post.

Babin then called Painter to speak to the grand jury only to find out, as Babin said then, if unreported child rapes had gone unprosecuted, not for criminal malfeasance.

Cointment was declared the winner once Painter left the race. The grand jury later found no coverup occurred. 


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.