NAPOLEONVILLE — Assumption Parish Sheriff Leland Falcon claims text messages with racial slurs were sent to his one-time chief criminal deputy by a state district judge — something the judge denies.
The dispute is the latest twist in the public fight over allegations that 23rd Judicial District Judge Jessie LeBlanc had a years-long affair with Capt. Bruce Prejean, which has led to an effort to remove her from criminal cases involving the sheriff’s office.
Falcon says photocopies of the messages and his own questioning of Prejean show that LeBlanc used the word “n-----" in criticizing a black court employee and a black Assumption sheriff's deputy. Prejean and LeBlanc are white.
District Attorney Ricky Babin said the comments give enough of an appearance of bias or prejudice that he will be forced to notify defendants and their lawyers in all three parishes of the judicial district where LeBlanc presides.
He said his office has already found 2,100 cases in Assumption, Ascension and St. James parishes in which notices need to be sent. The nature of the comments could affect cases with black defendants, defendants who had a black witness or black potential jurors.
"I mean it's just endless," he said.
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LeBlanc hasn't returned a call for comment to her office. Her attorney, Jill Craft, was provided the copies of the messages and responded on her behalf.
“She absolutely denies that she sent those text messages,” Craft said Wednesday, when first asked about them.
Craft said the copies of the messages appeared to have been altered, citing what she says were inconsistent cracks in the cellphone’s screen and different fonts and display characteristics in the images of the two text message strings. She called them "not credible."
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The Advocate obtained photocopies of two strings of text messages independently of the sheriff late last week and began questioning him and Craft about them on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The slurs in the messages are used in what appears to be an argument over a soured relationship. Some of the text exchange revolves around whether Prejean had an affair with someone else, which he denied in one message.
Though the names of the two engaged in the conversation aren't displayed in the messages, the telephone number listed in the strings is a cellphone number the judge was known to have used until recently. The other person in the text exchange was Prejean, Falcon has said.
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A text from LeBlanc's number responds: "At least I was NEVER unfaithful to you with ANYONE -- much less a n-----." The word was spelled out in all of the text messages in question, though The Advocate is not doing so.
In the other string of messages, which came one minute after the first string, a series of texts from LeBlanc's number say: "And you don't have to pretend we are friends in front of other people. I've also learned not to be fake. So if someone has a question refer them to me. And if you feel the need to share my messages — please share them all so they get the FULL story."
The texts then name someone as Prejean's friend and call the man a "thug n-----." Falcon identified the man as an Assumption Parish sheriff's deputy.
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A subsequent text from LeBlanc's number reads: "He is such a good friend/I can't wait till the day he is called out for what he is. Dirty cop. Thug. NI----."
Falcon has previously stated that after first denying the affair, Prejean told him the romantic relationship with LeBlanc lasted from 2012, around the time she first became judge, to sometime in 2016. Both Prejean and LeBlanc are married to other people.
Based on the timeframe that the sheriff says Prejean gave him, the December 2018 text messages were sent around two years after the relationship had ended but a little more than a year before it became public in early January.
At the time of the alleged relationship, Prejean was chief deputy, the second highest official in the department. Since the controversy erupted, Falcon has demoted Prejean, who served briefly as interim sheriff in 2016 and is a longtime employee of the department, to the rank of captain.
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The legal battle over whether LeBlanc should remain on criminal cases handled by the sheriff's office is ongoing. Assumption Parish prosecutors have said the alleged relationship between LeBlanc and Prejean poses a potential conflict for hundreds of criminal defendants.
Babin, the district attorney, and Chief Public Defender Alan Robert jointly filed a motion to remove LeBlanc from more than 170 criminal cases in Assumption and an undisclosed number of juvenile cases.
In motions Friday, LeBlanc refused to recuse herself but ordered that a hearing be set on the matter, which has been assigned to another judge.
Even as the fight to remove LeBlanc has moved forward and Babin has continued to notify defendants about the alleged affair, Babin said he only learned about the text messages Tuesday afternoon. Falcon gave him copies. Babin said he has not independently verified their authenticity.
Amid Craft's claims the messages were somehow altered, Falcon said in addition to interviewing Prejean, he has gathered supporting evidence that confirms the messages' authenticity. He didn't say what that evidence is.
Prejean has not spoken to The Advocate about his alleged relationship with LeBlanc or the messages. All of his statements about the LeBlanc matter have come through Falcon or the Sheriff's Office.
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The text conversation about the court employee touches on a topic LeBlanc raised with The Advocate when allegations of her affair with Prejean became public in mid-January. At the time, Falcon announced that Prejean had admitted his relationship with LeBlanc.
When asked by The Advocate for comment about Prejean’s claim, LeBlanc didn’t confirm or deny an affair, describing their relationship as a “close friendship.” But at the same time, she also claimed Prejean had an affair with the court employee. LeBlanc questioned why the sheriff didn’t view that as a conflict of interest, since that employee works for a judge.
The court employee she named is the same one mentioned in the text messages now at issue. Falcon said Prejean denies any romantic relationship with the court employee named by LeBlanc in the messages.
In addition to the texts the sheriff says LeBlanc sent to Prejean, hints of tensions between the two showed up in an email between them on March 7, 2017.
"Are you refusing to speak to me on a professional basis??" LeBlanc asked Prejean in an email with the subject line "Issue."
The Advocate obtained the email after a public records request with the Sheriff's Office for copies of Prejean's emails going back several years.
Emails before 2017 were not available due to two past changes of the Sheriff's Office email servers, spokesman Lonny Cavalier said.
No response to LeBlanc’s "Issue" email was obtained through the records request.
The Advocate also previously filed public records requests asking for text messages between LeBlanc and Prejean. The court administrator and sheriff's office both responded that any such messages wouldn't be subject to the public records law because neither LeBlanc nor Prejean had cellphones paid for by their offices.