GONZALES — Murphy J. Painter has filed a lawsuit accusing Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment, District Attorney Ricky Babin, a news site publisher and one other person of conspiring to record him, twist those words and later institute a grand jury investigation to create a defamatory cloud that pushed him out of the parish presidential election runoff last year.
Cointment won the election after Painter dropped out, following the publication of recording excerpts and a related story Oct. 18, 2019, on the Pelican Post website and Babin's announcement shortly afterward that he was calling Painter before the grand jury about his comments in the story.
"Faced with the power of the District Attorney and the fear of the District Attorney's control over the grand jury process and the evidence presented in support of the indictments, while fighting a very heated second primary election in which public support was devastated, Petitioner withdrew from the election," the suit says.
Using his words, the story had questioned whether Painter had covered up the alleged rape of five girls under the age of 12 earlier in his law enforcement career. Painter, a former chief sheriff's deputy in Ascension and state Alcohol and Tobacco Control commissioner, had denied any wrongdoing at the time.
The subsequent grand jury probe found no impropriety in the earlier handling of the rape case apparently referenced in the recording. Painter wasn't even with the Sheriff's Office at the time.
The defamation suit accuses Cointment of conspiring with Wade Petite, editor-in-chief of the Pelican Post, and Dustin Clouatre, a local insurance agent, of deceptively recording Painter and editing his words. Painter also accused Clouatre, who supported Cointment's campaign, of working on the effort in a bid to secure insurance contracts from the future Cointment administration.
Filed late Monday in Ascension Parish, the new suit names Cointment, Babin, Petite and his publication, the Pelican Post, Clouatre and his employer, Hughes Insurance Services, and an unnamed insurer.
Tyler Cavalier, spokesman for Babin, declined to comment.
Martin McConnell, parish government spokesman, said the parish hadn't been served with a lawsuit, "but we do not comment on litigation."
Clouatre also declined to comment. Calls to Hughes Insurance's owners weren't immediately returned early Tuesday evening.
Petite asserted Tuesday that Painter has little shot of prevailing: "He has minimal to no chance at success, in fact, no chance."
Painter, who says he was fired as ATC commissioner in 2010 amid allegations of abuse of a law enforcement database, for which he was later acquitted, has brought past civil suits, with mixed success, alleging his accusers in that incident had defamed his reputation.
The latest suit against Cointment, Babin and others represents a third legal action in the election-time allegations in Ascension. Last year, Painter won a court settlement to have the story and recording removed from the Pelican Post, but he is still battling to get a copy of the full recording. A state district judge has ruled Babin's office must turn it over, but Babin has appealed the ruling.
The latest suit accuses Babin, who won a third, six-year term when he was unopposed at qualifying this summer, of knowing the allegations raised in the Pelican Post story were false months earlier but employing the grand jury to harm Painter's reputation at a critical moment in the election.
At the time, Babin had said publicly Painter wasn't being called before the grand jury to investigate law enforcement malfeasance but to see if prosecutors had missed rape victims from the case referenced in the recording.
Painter's attorney, Kim Segura Landry, said Tuesday she has not received the full recording of her client. But the suit accuses Clouatre of making the recording on false pretenses and not telling Painter he was being recorded during a February 2019 meeting at Clouatre's office at Hughes Insurance Services.
The suit disputes claims from Petite at the time the story was published that the recording had been made during a prior interview in 2017.
The suit accuses Clouatre and Petite of editing the recording excerpt to hide Clouatre's voice and claims Petite published the false news account with "actual malice," a legal term reserved for defamation claims brought by public figures attempting to overcome First Amendment protections.