GONZALES — Walking away from the Ascension Parish Courthouse a free man, Parish President Kenny Matassa said he was "going back to work" after a nearly two-year legal battle to clear his name.
Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa was acquitted Wednesday of election bribery allegations that lingered over him and his administration…
The parish leader and former longtime Gonzales city councilman had just been acquitted Thursday of allegations that he and businessman Olin Berthelot tried to bribe A. Wayne Lawson to drop out of a November 2016 Gonzales City Council race.
Matassa resumes work with the same growth-based infrastructure troubles he had when the allegations first came to light in August 2016. He is also probably less than a year from when he would need to start his 2019 re-election bid.
Next week, the Parish Council is expected to vote on whether to put a measure on the ballot in December to replace the elected parish president with an appointed parish manager.
Matassa didn’t return a call Friday to discuss his re-election prospects, but the runoff opponent whom he narrowly defeated in 2015, Clint Cointment, said he has been preparing for another run no matter what happened to Matassa.
Others who said Friday that they have been considering a run, regardless of Matassa’s legal troubles, are State Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and St. Amant Fire Chief James LeBlanc.
Reaction to Matassa’s acquittal Thursday has been mixed, with some saying they were just glad to be able to move on, one way or the other.
"I'm glad that we have gotten through this situation. We are ready to move forward. You know, we got a parish president declared innocent and are ready to work with him," Council Chairman Bill Dawson said Friday.
Administration officials said Friday that the operation of parish government has not been affected, as Matassa led the parish through the 2016 flood recovery and related drainage improvements, the ongoing $45 million Move Ascension road program and changes to the parish’s organizational structure and pay system.
"President Matassa remained fully engaged in his work," spokesman Kyle Gautreau said.
GONZALES — Olin Berthelot, the co-defendant in an election bribery case that ensnared Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa, agreed on the …
But Councilman Dawson said that while the council and Matassa continued to work together, the bribery claims left a cloud that detracted from what the parish has accomplished.
The legal troubles also contributed to a sometimes low-key approach from Matassa, who early in the bribery scandal often played cat-and-mouse with reporters seeking comments from him in public and at times has been a no-show at various council meetings.
Kenny Pontesso, a 38-year-old Baton Rouge engineer who works daily in Ascension, was sharing lunch Friday at Albasha’s restaurant on La. 30 in Gonzales with colleagues from Ascension. Pontesso said he hopes Matassa and the parish get on with business.
“I’m glad for it to be over, honestly,” Pontesso said. “He refused to step down, so I mean the parish kind of was handcuffed by having a president who had all these legal proceedings going on.”
Despite that sentiment, some critics of Matassa’s were still processing Friday what had just happened in court.
Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, a strong critic of Matassa’s, said Friday his constituents in his northern Prairieville council district are overwhelmingly disappointed with the prosecution.
“I believe the general belief, with which I concur, is that for whatever inexplicable reason at this point, the prosecution laid down,” Satterlee said.
He had successfully pushed for the adoption of a still-standing no-confidence resolution against the parish president after his bribery indictment in March 2017.
Earlier that year, amid threats of a recall petition for Attorney General Jeff Landry over the pace of the Matassa investigation, Satterlee was also among a group of parish residents, along with Cointment, who met with a top criminal deputy of Landry’s to discuss the grand jury process.
The councilman sat through all of the testimony in Gonzales on Wednesday and Thursday but said he left disgusted before final arguments and the ruling.
Judge Thomas Kliebert Jr. found prosecutors did not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that a quid pro quo relationship existed between the cash and the job Matassa was accused offering Lawson and Lawson’s proposed withdrawal from the Gonzales election.
Among the many problems that Satterlee said he and others saw was the testimony of the prosecution’s key witness, Berthelot.
Berthelot, a co-defendant in the case who reached a deal with prosecutors, testified to helping discuss and then coordinate getting Lawson cash and a parish job but repeatedly insisted they weren’t anything more than help for a friend.
Steven Moore, Berthelot’s defense attorney, has said his client’s deal with prosecutors never involved his testifying against Matassa.
“The state knew that. The state understood. They simply wanted Olin (Berthelot) to tell the truth,” Moore said Thursday.
Prosecutors with the Attorney General’s Office have said the office remains committed to prosecuting public corruption and that, though Berthelot may have called the job and cash help for a friend, they still believed a crime occurred.
Pat Magee, the office's criminal director, said Saturday that the Attorney General's investigators and prosecutors spent more than a year building and presenting the strongest case, including pretrial fights "to stop the defense from excluding evidence" and redefining the legal meaning of what a "candidate" is.
"We are all extremely disappointed by the court's decision," Magee said. "One must always remember that we must respect the process whether or not we like the outcome."
Perhaps one side consequence of Matassa’s acquittal is some additional momentum for the A Better Ascension movement. The group of local business people have been pushing for a change to the home rule charter that would do away with an elected parish president in favor of a Parish Council-appointed parish manager, as well as other structural changes.
A Better Ascension's supporters, who contend their model would reduce chances for corruption, have said their effort predated Matassa’s bribery case and was never about one person.
Still, ABA's public roll out has fallen in the midst of it all. Brandon Trosclair, a board member of ABA, said his group has seen people's frustration about Matassa's legal situation.
“They’re just sick and tired of government as a whole, and I think that helps bring about change,” he said.
Back at Albasha’s, Pontesso’s lunch mate, Michael Womack, 41, of Prairieville, said Friday that Ascension has outgrown its “governance model” and he does believe Matassa’s acquittal could help ABA, an initiative Womack supports.
He said people he knows haven’t liked what they’ve seen through the entire Matassa case.
“Just the whole episode is very embarrassing,” Womack said.