GONZALES — Ascension Parish is trying to recover $545,000 from its former insurer over the company's refusal to pay criminal defense costs for Parish President Kenny Matassa.

The parish government and Matassa have filed suit against Berkley Insurance Co. that seeks attorney's fees, legal penalties and interest related to the defense of Matassa in a 2017 election bribery indictment. He was acquitted last year.

The new state court lawsuit is the culmination of nearly a year of back-and-forth between the parish and its onetime liability insurer over paying the legal bills. State law allows state and local governments to use taxpayer money to reimburse the legal defense costs of officials who are charged with a crime and are later exonerated.

Matassa has unsuccessfully sought support for reimbursement of his legal fees but a majority on the council has balked at using taxpayer dollars to pay for it.

The suit brought by parish government and Matassa accuses Berkley of breach of contract for failing to pay the fees and challenges Berkley's contention that the claim, which was submitted three months after Matassa's acquittal, was filed too late.  

"Berkley's denial of coverage was in bad faith," the suit alleges.

The suit was filed June 18 in 23rd Judicial District Court in Gonzales and includes a claim for $231,829.12 in legal fees charged by Matassa's Baton Rouge criminal defense attorney, Lewis Unglesby.

The parish government's insurance policy had a $50,000 deductible, so the parish is trying to recover the balance of the legal fees —$181,829 — plus unspecified legal interest. The parish is also seeking legal penalties that are double the value of the owed legal fees, which total another $363,658, the suit says. 

An Ascension Parish grand jury indicted Matassa and his longtime political ally, Olin Berthelot, in March 2017, accusing them of attempting to entice a Gonzales City Council candidate to drop out of a fall 2016 election with the promise of cash and a parish job. 

But a state district judge acquitted Matassa in July 2018 following a non-jury trial and prosecutors later dropped the same charge against Berthelot. The men disputed the bribery charge, saying they were only trying to help a friend in need who later twisted their help into false accusations with the assistance of political opponents who recorded them.

Karen Horvath, spokeswoman for the parent company of Berkley Insurance, said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation. Berkley had not yet filed a legal response to the suit by Wednesday.

Tim Hardy, the parish lawyer handling the litigation, declined to comment Tuesday, saying the suit "speaks for itself."

The suit has already prompted opposition from critics of Matassa, including Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee, on social media. The parish president's critics are questioning of the use of taxpayer money to pursue the litigation.

On Tuesday night, a proposed budget increase for Hardy's firm, Roedel Parsons, drew questions during a Council Finance Committee meeting.

Jeff Pettit, who is running for Parish Council in the Gonzales area, asked for an accounting of the firm's expenses to date, including for the suit over Matassa's legal fees, and questioned why parish government was a party to the suit and what it hoped to gain.

"What damage has the parish suffered? Did Ascension Parish government expend any moneys toward the legal defense of Kenny Matassa against the felony bribery charges," he asked.

The additional funding for Roedel Parsons was originally proposed at $260,000 for the utility, water and drainage departments, as well as general legal services and personnel matters, but the committee later limited it to $85,000 at the administration's request.

Ken Dawson, the chief administrative officer, acknowledged under questioning from Satterlee that $50,000 of the remaining money would be for general legal services and personnel matters.

Satterlee asked Dawson directly how much taxpayer money would be set aside for the legal fee suit but didn't get a clear answer.

Dawson said the litigation is ongoing and that the money is for legal matters previously discussed in closed session that included those involving former parish employees and "some issues with the insurance that we're dealing with."

Satterlee ended up the only council member of those present to oppose the budget change for the firm; the full council still needs to vote.

According to the lawsuit, the insurance policy with Berkley is supposed to provide $1 million in coverage for liability claims against public officials, including alleged wrongful acts as long as they were part of the officials' duties. However, a claim has to be filed within the same "policy year" that the incident occurred.

The legal dispute centers on what incident should have triggered the moment for the parish to file the claim — Matassa's indictment in 2017 or his acquittal in 2018.

In the suit, the parish contends the policy excluded reimbursement of legal fees while Matassa faced a criminal indictment, so a claim wasn't filed until Oct. 16, 2018, after Matassa was acquitted.

In response to the parish's insurance claim, Berkley told the parish that the claim should have been filed in 2017 when Matassa was indicted.

In a Jan. 31 letter denying the parish's appeal of the company's rejection of the claim, a Berkley lawyer wrote the claim for legal fees would not have been excluded had it been filed before the acquittal but made "subject to a suspensive condition." The letter was filed with the parish's suit.

By the time the claim was filed in October 2018, the new 2018 policy year had already begun. The liability policy renewed on March 1, 2018, more than four months before Matassa was acquitted.

Parish officials in their suit claim the "suspensive condition" that Berkley described in their denials is not "supported" in the parish's 2017 and 2018 policy language. 

The suit also names Harry Robert Insurance Agency Inc. of Gonzales, the parish's longtime insurance consultant, as a defendant.

The suit accuses the Gonzales-based company of failing to tell Berkley about Matassa's indictment in a timely fashion in 2017 and seeks Matassa's legal fees and legal interest, plus other costs, from that company if a court finds Berkley doesn't owe the reimbursement to the parish.

Harry and Taylor Robert were not available for comment Tuesday.

Unglesby, Matassa's criminal defense attorney, said Wednesday he wasn't aware the suit had been filed.

"I haven't been paid, and I look forward to getting paid," Unglesby said.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.