Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa speaks Thursday, July 18, 2019, during discussions before the Ascension Parish Council at a meeting in Gonzales.

GONZALES — Attorneys for a Gonzales insurance company say Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa may have committed a state ethics violation by being a plaintiff in a suit to recoup nearly $182,000 in legal fees for his defense against a March 2017 bribery charge.

Matassa, who is not seeking reelection Oct. 12, was acquitted last year of the allegation that he and a longtime friend tried to bribe A. Wayne Lawson, a Gonzales City Council candidate, to drop out of a 2016 election, but the parish's insurer has refused to pay his legal bills.

In mid-June, parish government and Matassa sued Berkley Insurance Company and the parish's insurance consultant, Harry Robert Insurance, to recoup roughly $545,000 in combined legal fees and penalties.

The suit accuses of Harry Robert Insurance of having some liability for Berkley's nonpayment by failing to properly handle the claim for Matassa's fees. In response, attorneys for Harry Robert Insurance contend in new court papers that Matassa broke state ethics prohibitions when he made himself a joint plaintiff in the civil suit.

They point to a portion of the state ethics code that bars government officials from entering into transactions with the local governments they oversee when they have an economic interest in the transaction. 

"Matassa's appearance and participation in this lawsuit in his purported capacity as the Ascension Parish President as a co-plaintiff with APG (Ascension Parish Government) may fall within the scope of (state ethics prohibitions) because Plaintiffs seek the recovery of economic value to and for Matassa other than compensation and benefits payable to him in his capacity as the Ascension Parish President," the court papers allege.

In a recent interview, George Fagan, Harry Robert Insurance's attorney, said his client has not filed an ethics complaint.

The ethics allegation is one of several legal attacks that Fagan and other lawyers have mounted to deny Matassa's and the parish's claims against the company and undercut the foundations of their suit.

The court papers go on to say that Matassa's presence in the suit constitutes an improper contract with the parish he oversees. The lawyers further contend in their filings that parish government has no business being a party to the suit because the legal fees were incurred by Matassa privately, not by the local government.

The suit is still in the early stages and a state district judge has not ruled on the merit of the suit's allegations or the allegations in the insurance consultant's response. 

As of Friday, the parish also had not responded to the claim. However, Christina Peck, attorney for the parish, said that before filing the suit, the parish received a legal opinion indicating the Parish Council had the discretion to pay Matassa's legal fees once he was acquitted.   

"They didn't take these steps lightly," she said.

Though the state ethics code bars government officials from entering into transactions with the governments they oversee for their personal benefit, it also exempts them from that prohibition when salary and other normal job benefits are involved, according to Kathleen Allen, state ethics administrator.

The parish government paid Berkley for a liability policy to cover wrongful acts and other errors by public officials and employees. While that policy doesn't cover when officials are accused or convicted of a crime, an acquittal or the dropping of any criminal charges opens the door to payment.

Matassa is not named as private individual in the parish suit but in his capacity as parish president.

Some legal observers suggested the question in the ethics aspect of the legal fight appears to be whether the insurance coverage is part of those normal benefits and whether Matassa's actions were part of his job as parish president. 

Peck pointed out that Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joseph Waitz Jr. issued a legal opinion Sept. 25 saying that the Parish Council had the discretion to pay the legal fees if Matassa were acquitted, if the fees were reasonable and if Matassa was acting in the course of his job as parish president.

In his nonbinding opinion, Waitz found the fees were reasonable and that Matassa "was sitting as the parish president" when he offered a parish job to Lawson, the candidate. Matassa's offer "arose out of his official duties as Parish President," Waitz wrote.

Peck said that in that situation, it "just doesn't make logical sense to me" that Matassa could not be a party to the parish's suit.

She also noted that, in contrast to the parish's discretion to pay the legal fees, the state is obligated by law to pay the legal fees of a state official in a similar situation.

Harry Robert Insurance's attorneys contend Matassa wasn't acting as parish president, the insurance coverage isn't part of his normal benefits as a parish employee and his legal fees accrued as part of his defense as a private citizen. 

Matassa and his attorney have contended the parish president wasn't bribing Lawson but simultaneously discussing the political scene in Gonzales and the candidate's financial needs, during which Matassa offered him a parish job and a loan that he didn't expect to be paid back.

The legal fees are owed to Matassa's personal attorney, Lewis Unglesby, who says his fees of $231,829 haven't been paid.

The parish is trying to recoup those fees, less a $50,000 deductible; a legal penalty of $363,658 and interest, parish legal fees and court costs.

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