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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 — Murphy Painter, a onetime chief sheriff's deputy in Ascension Parish and a recent candidate for parish president, accused the owner of a Gonzales news website of knowingly publishing misleadingly edited recorded comments so they sounded as if Painter was admitting to the criminal cover-up of child rapes while he was still in local law enforcement. 

In a new defamation lawsuit, Painter adds that The Pelican Post and its editor, Wade Petite, published the comments and a companion story last month to help Painter's political opponent, Clint Cointment, even after prosecutors had received the recording excerpt months earlier and declined to pursue a case against Painter.

The lawsuit asked a state district judge to order the Post and Petite to cease publishing the story and the recorded excerpts online.

"The knowingly false statements made by Petite with actual malice in the Article and the edited Recording of Petitioner has caused and continues to cause immediate and irreparable harm to the reputation of the Petitioner," the lawsuit alleges.

The suit was filed Wednesday in 23rd Judicial District Court in Ascension Parish. Judge Alvin Turner Jr. has ordered a hearing 9:30 a.m. Nov. 18 to hear arguments on whether to issue a temporary order to take down the story and recordings while he considers imposing a permanent order.

The suit names The Pelican Post and Petite as defendants and, if Painter prevails, seeks legal costs. Painter and his attorney, Kim Segura Landry, did not return messages for comment Friday.

The Pelican Post published the comments and companion article on Oct. 18, six days after Painter had made it into the Nov. 16 runoff for Ascension Parish president against Cointment.

Petite and Cointment have denied any coordination in the publication of the article and comments; Petite has said he favored Cointment for parish president.

In a 49-second recording, a voice that is purportedly Painter's can be heard complaining that he spent years working for now-deceased Sheriff Harold Tridico in hopes of one day "taking over." Painter was Tridico's chief deputy for several years.

"The next week, whenever we find a friend of ours that raped five girls under the age of 12 years old, and y’all want me to turn my head on that and look the other way," the voice says, before turning to other allegations.

With the recording's publication, District Attorney Ricky Babin convened the parish grand jury to investigate the allegations and announced he would call Painter before the jurors and seek a full copy of the recording to see if a possible rape suspect had escaped justice.

Painter withdrew from the race three days later after media began questioning him about the recording. Babin's office announced Tuesday no evidence was found of a cover-up.

In a prior interview and written statement with The Advocate, Painter refused to acknowledge the comments were his or that they accurately reflected what he may have said.

He also asserted that he was no longer chief deputy when the alleged incidents may have occurred, though, at the same time, he also contended he didn't know what the incidents were.

But neither the Post story nor the excerpted comments specify when or to whom the allegations pertain. Petite has previously declined to say to what the comments refer.

In the lawsuit, Painter says that he stepped down as Tridico's chief deputy on June 30, 1988, and alleged the rape allegations occurred in the 1990s "as evidenced by the prosecution filed in the criminal court records."

Painter has alleged the story was part of threat from Petite to defame him if he ran for parish president and that Petite knew Painter wasn't chief sheriff's deputy at the time of the alleged rapes.

Babin has said that Petite turned over the excerpted recording to his office on June 24. Babin added that he turned it over to Louisiana State Police, which declined to pursue the matter.

In claiming that the Post knowingly published false statements about him to aid Cointment, Painter is seeking to overcome the high legal bar that the U.S. Supreme Court has set for speech about elected officials and other public figures, known as the "actual malice" standard. Candidates for office are deemed public figures under this standard. 

Mary Ellen Roy, a New Orleans-based First Amendment lawyer, said that under that standard, the plaintiffs have to prove a defendant knew what he was saying was false or acted with a reckless disregard of the truth.

"That doesn't mean he was just being reckless," Roy said. "It means that the defendant actually had serious doubts about the falsity of it."

In cases involving public figures, Roy added the defendant does not have to prove the truth, as a defense. Roy said the cases are rarely won because the plaintiff's burden of proof is difficult to meet and is higher than the typical standard used in civil cases.

In the Pelican Post's story, the publication contends the recordings stemmed from days of interviews in July 2017 with Painter about his defamation lawsuit against the state. That suit stemmed from his departure in leading the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. It was during these talks, the article reports, that Painter raised the allegations.

But Painter's suit against the Post alleges that Dustin Clouatre, a local insurance agent who dabbles in local politics, recorded him without his authorization during a Feb. 7, 2019, conversation about his run for parish president. Then Clouatre, the lawsuit alleges, edited Painter's responses to his questions.

In Louisiana, the law requires that only one party to a conversation have knowledge that it is being recorded, not both.

In a statement and interview, Clouatre didn't dispute that he had met with Painter sometime in early February but disputed that he is the source of the recording.

"I, in no way, shape or form, have anything to do with a recording of Murphy Painter. I believe Mr. Petite has made it clear that I wasn’t his source," Clouatre said. "Murphy Painter has long accused everyone around him for his endless misfortunes with his extreme victim complex. It’s time for him to look in a mirror."

Clouatre added that he would not have "just brushed" off allegations of a cover-up.

In interviews last month, Petite said he had hours of recorded interviews with Painter from 2015 and 2017 and that there were many occasions where he heard Painter's complaints about his time as chief deputy. Painter himself has previously acknowledged he participated in an interview with Petite about his defamation lawsuit in 2017.

But on Friday, Petite said that while he may have given the impression the recordings stemmed from 2017 interviews, he contended he never specified from which interview the recordings stemmed.

He refused to clarify the source and context of the recording. When asked if he disputed Painter's allegations that Clouatre made the recording, Petite said it wasn't Clouatre.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.