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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.

A state appellate panel has upheld a lower-court ruling requiring Ascension Parish District Attorney Ricky Babin to provide Murphy Painter with the full copy of a recording that caused him to exit a fall 2019 runoff election for parish president.

Pieces of the recording that were made public made it seem like Painter, a former state Alcohol Tobacco and Control commissioner and chief sheriff's deputy in Ascension, admitted to knowledge of a cover-up of five child rapes in Ascension in the 1990s.

A grand jury later found no evidence of such a cover-up, but the recording created enough scandal to drive Painter out of the president's race, handing the office to its current occupant, Clint Cointment. 

A three-judge panel of the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal unanimously denied Babin's appeal of a lower-court ruling that found the recording was a public record and should be given to Painter. Painter has sued Babin to force him to respond to a public records request and cough up the full recording.

Babin's office has turned over only a short section of the recording and not the full copy, Painter says.

Painter has separately filed a defamation suit claiming the recording was part of a conspiracy to tarnish his character during a heated election runoff last year.

He alleges the secret recording was deceptively edited and timed for the start of his runoff campaign. Among those alleged as part of the plot are Babin, Cointment, an online news site editor and others.

"I would just say, 'They made right ruling,'" Kim Segura Landry, Painter's attorney, said late Tuesday morning of the Monday 1st Circuit ruling.

Tyler Cavalier, Babin's spokesman, declined to comment Tuesday.

In court papers, Cointment has denied Painter's charges, claimed they lack evidence and disputed any involvement in an alleged plot to harm his reputation. Others named in the suit have also denied wrongdoing.

In a late Tuesday morning interview, Landry said she had not received a copy of the full record and that the District Attorney's Office indicated it would take a full 30 days to decide whether to appeal the 1st Circuit ruling.

But, subsequent to that interview, on Tuesday afternoon, the District Attorney's Office filed a notice, signed by Landry, showing she had received the full recording that day. Landry wasn't immediately available for comment Wednesday.

The Advocate has separately filed a records request for the recording. The District Attorney's Office had put that request on hold, pending the results of Painter's legal dispute, but said Wednesday afternoon the record is now available.

Portions of that recording, purportedly of Painter's own words, were used in a fall 2019 news account by The Pelican Post.

The online publication accused Painter of admitting in the recording to what turned out to be unfounded allegations that he was part of or had knowledge of the cover-up of five child rapes in Ascension in the 1990s. At the time of the crimes, he had already left the Sheriff's Office.

After the account went public on Oct. 18, 2019, days after Painter placed second in a primary race for Ascension president, Babin convened the grand jury to investigate the allegations allegedly raised by the recording and called Painter before the investigative panel.

Though Babin said Painter wasn't under criminal suspicion but was being called for information, Painter left the race amid the swirl of negative press. The grand jury later found no evidence of a cover-up or any unreported rapes. 

In the lower court and before the 1st Circuit, Babin's attorneys argued the recording was part of a secret grand jury proceeding and shouldn't be released to protect integrity of the process. They also argued Painter failed to offer a particular need to overcome the grand jury protections and hand over the recording, without which some injustice would result. 

Interim 23rd Judicial District Judge Emile R. St. Pierre ruled in Painter's favor on Aug. 21, however. He found the recording, though it had been presented to the grand jury, was a public record.

St. Pierre found the recording was simply "tangible evidence," like crime scene photos, and not the kind of direct grand jury testimony normally afforded exemptions to the public records law.

"I mean, tangible evidence like that, to me, it's not the same thing as testimony," St. Pierre said in an Aug. 21 hearing, according to a transcript. "It's just what it is. It's a tangible item that was shown to the grand jury."

St. Pierre is a former prosecutor.

The 1st Circuit offered no reason in its ruling Monday but denied the appeal. Judges Toni Higginbotham, Mitchell Theriot and Elizabeth Wolfe sat on the appellate panel.

In Painter's defamation suit, he alleges the recording was made in February 2019 under false pretenses by insurance agent Dustin Clouatre, then shared with the editor of the Pelican Post and deceptively edited to hide Clouatre's involvement. Painter alleges Cointment, Babin and Clouatre's employer were party to aspects of the alleged scheme.

In the Aug. 21 transcript, St. Pierre says he listened to the full recording, says it was Painter discussing various aspects of his life and says the "young man" who made the recording had assured Painter their discussion was confidential.

"And obviously it wasn't, and that young man has a lot to learn about being honest," said St. Pierre, who didn't identify who made the recording.

Clouatre has previously denied any involvement, but court papers filed by his attorneys since the defamation suit was brought indicate that he has a copy of the recording in his possession.

Landry is seeking access to that recording also; Clouatre's attorneys want a protective order before he turns over the information.

Editor's note: This story was updated 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, to reflect new developments in the status of the recording of Murphy Painter.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.