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File photo of Murphy Painter from Sept. 25, 2019, in Gonzales, La.

Onetime Ascension Parish presidential candidate Murphy J. Painter won access Friday to a 51-minute secret recording, purportedly of his own words, that factored into unfounded, election-time accusations last fall that the former law enforcement official was party to the cover-up of five child rapes in the parish in the 1990s.

Though he vehemently denied the claims and a parish grand jury later found no evidence of a cover-up, Painter withdrew from a then-pending fall runoff election for parish president days after the allegations came to light in October 2019.

The withdrawal cleared the way for current Parish President Clint Cointment to win office.

On Friday, interim Judge Emile R. St. Pierre ordered 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin to produce the audio recording by 4 p.m. Wednesday, overriding objections from the parish's top prosecutor that the recordings were not public record because they were received as part of a grand jury investigation.

St. Pierre issued the order after a Friday morning proceeding in Gonzales in which he found the recordings were tangible evidence akin to crime scene photographs and that they are public record. The written judgment is still pending.

Before the ruling, St. Pierre ordered and had previously received a copy of the full recording and listened to it in his chambers, Painter's attorney said Friday.

Painter, a former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control commissioner and chief sheriff's deputy in Ascension, had sued Babin in February to force release of the records.

Kim Segura Landry, Painter's attorney, said her client believes the recordings and publicity around it damaged his reputation and that he may pursue further litigation over it.

“We have to know who made it first,” she said.

A spokesman for Babin couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

Painter previously won a consent judgment against the online publication that first published the cover-up allegations, The Pelican Post, in mid-November. Under the deal, a news article and published audio snippet of Painter's conversation were permanently removed from the internet — but that happened well after the election was over.

In the once-published, 49-second recording, Painter can be heard talking about people wanting him "to turn my head on that and look the other way" about allegations that "a friend of ours had raped five girls under the age of 12 years old." 

Painter, prosecutors and the author of the news story were not able to say at the time what case Painter was referencing in the recorded excerpt, but, on Friday, Landry said Painter was talking about the attempted prosecution of Onnie Ray Farris, then of Gonzales, in the early 1990s.

Those allegations came to light a few years after Painter had left the Sheriff's Office. He was chief deputy until 1988, when he had a falling out with then-Sheriff Harold Tridico and later ran unsuccessfully against him for sheriff.

Farris, a top sheriff's deputy and state trooper, was arrested and had faced the child molestation and rape charges.

Prosecutors then under District Attorney Tony Falterman agreed to dismiss the counts involving four children in favor of a pretrial intervention program requiring the suspect to move out of state away from his home, which was near where the victims lived, and also not contact his victims for two years. Farris, who has since returned to Gonzales and died last month, did not admit guilt as part of the deal.

The victims or their family signed a statement agreeing to the deal at the time. Prosecutors previously announced last fall that the case raised by Painter in the recording, though not identified then, had been handled appropriately.

In court papers, Painter has alleged that Wade Petite, editor-in-chief of The Pelican Post, misrepresented that the recordings of Painter were made during interviews with Petite in 2017. Painter believes they were made surreptitiously with another man, Dustin Clouatre, in February 2019 during what was supposed to be a confidential conversation about garnering election support.

Clouatre, who backed Cointment in the election and now works for a company with insurance-related contracts with parish government, has previously denied making a recording. He said he did meet with Painter in February 2019, however.

Landry, Painter's attorney, had sought the recordings first through subpoena amid the litigation against The Pelican Post, but prosecutors never delivered the records in time for the court proceedings in November with Petite, court papers say.

During those proceedings, Petite acknowledged on the stand that he no longer had any of the recordings and had turned over a thumb drive with the audio recordings to Babin's office.

Landry filed two public records requests for the recordings and other materials in December and again in January, according to court papers. She argued that any pending criminal investigation into the cover-up allegations had ended with the grand jury findings from early November. Under state law, records from closed criminal investigations are public record.

While Babin's office turned over some of those materials, including a 51-second recording of Painter, the District Attorney's office refused to turn over the fuller recording that Petite said he supplied to prosecutors, citing grand jury secrecy, letters show. 

Painter followed up with a lawsuit in February seeking what's known as a writ of mandamus to force Babin's office to act. St. Pierre granted that request Friday.

Painter is also seeking attorney's fees and civil penalties for the District Attorney's Office's failure to provide the records sooner.

St. Pierre has set the case for review and attorney's fees on Sept. 25. St. Pierre has also given prosecutors time to seek an appeal.

In Painter's suit against Petite, Painter alleged that Petite published the cover-up story to help Cointment in the parish president's race, even though prosecutors had received the recording excerpt months earlier that summer and declined to pursue a case against Painter.

Petite and Cointment, whom Petite favored, have denied any coordination in connection with the story about Painter.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.