BR.kenny4.071919.jpg

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

DONALDSONVILLE — In one of their last acts, the outgoing Ascension Parish Council agreed to pay $231,829 for Parish President Kenny Matassa's legal defense fees against a 2017 bribery indictment.

The decision, in a 7-2 vote with two members absent, settles a question that has been lingering before the council since Matassa was acquitted in a mid-2018 trial over allegations that he tried to bribe a Gonzales City Council candidate to drop out of a 2016 election with the offer of a parish job and cash.

Matassa did not seek reelection this fall to a second term amid the political fallout over the case. Gonzales surveyor Clint Cointment won after former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Murphy Painter dropped out before the Nov. 16 runoff.

Cointment is expected to take office in early January along with six new council members on the 11-member body. 

The decision by the outgoing council Thursday night came shortly after Matassa and five of the outgoing members were handed awards honoring their years of service and posed for photographs during the same meeting at the old Courthouse in Donaldsonville. 

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 in the course of their duties and are later exonerated.

Matassa denied the charge, saying he was trying to help a friend and fill a parish opening. A state district judge acquitted him in July 2018 in a bench trial in Gonzales.

The Terrebonne Parish District Attorney's Office — the Ascension district attorney was recused and the Attorney General's Office prosecuted Matassa — provided an opinion to Ascension, saying parish government could pay Matassa's legal fees after his acquittal if certain conditions were met.

The DA's Office opined they were met: Matassa made the job offer to then-City Council candidate A. Wayne Lawson while he was parish president, so the offer arose out of his duties as president.

Even so, the issue of the legal fees has proven tough politically and legally since the acquittal. Until earlier this week, Matassa had been unable even to get payment of the fees on the council agenda.

The administration also pursued reimbursement for Matassa's costs through the parish's liability insurer, but the company, Berkeley Insurance, has refused to pay. The $1 million policy is designed to protect local officials, including the president, from personal liability arising out of governmental actions.

The parish sued in mid-June for breach of contract in a case that is still pending.

The payment to Matassa Thursday came in the context of that case. Attorney Christina Peck, who is representing the parish, said that under the policy, the insurer only pays as a reimbursement.

"The defendants have raised the issue that unless and until the fees are paid, the reimbursement won't kick in," she said.

Under the council motion approving the payment, which outgoing Councilman Oliver Joseph said was being made on the advice of the parish's attorney, the parish agreed to pay Matassa's fees. Any future payoff from the insurer will be used as reimbursement for the payment to the parish president, Joseph added.

In addition to the cost for the fees, the parish is seeking added penalties worth double the fees' value.

Leaving the courthouse with his wife, Selma, Matassa offered limited comment. 

"Well, I think it's the right thing to do. That's all I got to say," he said.

Lewis Unglesby, Matassa's criminal defense attorney who has said that he hadn't been paid awaiting resolution of the issue, was equally pleased.

"Oh I'm happy, happy. I very happy," Unglesby said.

The council made the decision without any public debate or any clear advance notification to the public.

The council met in a closed-door session under the last item on its agenda, an executive session that only mentioned the pending state court lawsuit against Berkeley Insurance without any reference to Matassa's legal fees.

Under state open meetings laws, local bodies can meet in secret to discuss ongoing litigation, but any decisions they make must be voted on in public.

Nine Parish Council members, Matassa, Unglesby, Peck and parish staffers met in a closed antechamber for about 15 minutes before emerging to vote. 

Councilmen John Cagnolatti, Randy Clouatre, Benny Johnson, Joseph, Dempsey Lambert, Todd Lambert and Travis Turner voted "yes." Council Chairwoman Teri Casso and Councilman Aaron Lawler voted "no."

Clouatre, Johnson, Joseph and Todd Lambert are leaving office in early January. Thursday was their last regular meeting, though a special meeting on parishwide sewer may still occur later this month. Outgoing Councilman Bill Dawson was absent.

Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee, an outspoken critic of Matassa and the pursuit of reimbursement for his legal fees, participated in the entire meeting until the end when the council voted to go into closed session on the Berkeley case. Satterlee, whose term is also ending, cast the sole "no" vote to enter executive session and then left the courthouse as other members filed into the antechamber.

Satterlee said he didn't want to be in a session that he believed then would be about Matassa's legal fee reimbursement. He said he didn't think the parish should be paying lawyers to pursue a claim against Berkeley because the costs were Matassa's to pay. 

"It's a personal matter, not a parish matter," he said.

Turner disagreed with Satterlee. He and Cagnolatti moved to put the item on the council agenda for Thursday. 

Turner said he read through the court trial transcripts and recorded phone transcripts that were submitted but not read at trial. He said Matassa was innocent of the charge and that he was acting as parish president. The councilman said prosecutors shouldn't have even brought the case.

"At the end of the day, to me, that was right thing to do" to pay Matassa's fees, Turner said.

Peck, the parish's civil attorney, noted that if Matassa were a state official, the state would be required by law to pay his legal fees. 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.