A newly released internal probe says Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto asked one of his deputies to obtain surveillance footage of a coffeehouse meeting between Col. John Fortunato and two other retired lawmen — contradicting the sheriff's repeated claims that the deputy obtained the footage of his own accord in a misguided attempt to assist Lopinto's campaign.
Lopinto has insisted in recent weeks that he was not even aware of the existence of the video before the Sheriff's Office late last year received a public-records request from a local television station requesting a copy of the video and any records relating to its collection.
But an internal affairs report received Tuesday by The New Orleans Advocate paints an entirely different picture of the coffeehouse controversy, a scandal that Lopinto has sought to blame on three deputies he said acted without his direction when they downloaded the video from the Elmwood P.J.'s.
The records show Lopinto and his chief deputy, Tim Scanlan, were the subjects of the internal investigation, even though the sheriff said three deputies involved in the collection of the video would receive "counseling."
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto refused Friday to release the names of three deputies under internal investigation for obtaining a coffee…
Fortunato, who retired from the Sheriff's Office to challenge Lopinto in the March 24 primary, had been meeting at the cafe in mid-October with Walter "Tom" Gorman and John Thevenot about a week before Fortunato formally kicked off his campaign.
A few days after the coffee klatch, on Oct. 18, Lopinto had a "casual conversation" with one of his deputies, Sgt. Rodney Naumann, at a crash scene, according to the internal affairs report.
Naumann told the sheriff he witnessed the coffeehouse gathering three days earlier, having walked into the P.J.'s while he was off duty.
"Sheriff Lopinto requested a picture of the meeting," Maj. William Boudreaux wrote in the report.
Naumann then told the sheriff he knew the owner of the cafe, Mike Pierce, and that he "could inquire if getting a photo was possible."
Hours later, Lopinto told Scanlan, his chief deputy, that "he would like to have a copy of" the coffeehouse surveillance footage, the report says. "Based on this conversation, Chief Scanlan called Sgt. Naumann and asked if he could get it on one of his breaks."
Naumann later took a coffee break and, with the owner's permission, tried to make a copy of the surveillance tape from the cafe's security camera. After struggling to copy the footage, he telephoned Scanlan, who asked another deputy, Detective Robert Miles, "if he would take an early lunch break and go and assist Naumann," the report says.
Miles then asked his supervisor, Detective Steven Villere, to assist him in copying the video, the report says. Miles and Villere are assigned to the Sheriff's Office's digital forensics unit.
"Both detectives did volunteer to do a favor for their chief and take an early lunch," the report says.
The deputies eventually copied the "video/photograph" of the meeting and placed it on a "non-departmental thumb drive," the report says. That drive was later handed over to Scanlan, Lopinto's chief deputy.
Another election, another case of political shenanigans inside a Jefferson Parish coffeehouse.
Jefferson Sheriff Joe Lopinto said Tuesday that three of his deputies are under investigation for improperly obtaining surveillance footage from an Elmwood cafe that showed John Fortunato — Lopinto's chief opponent in the March 24 primary — meeting with two other longtime lawmen who recently retired from the Sheriff's Office.
The report says Miles and Villere "were considered witnesses in this investigation," even though Lopinto publicly said the deputies involved would receive "deficiency counseling" for their roles in obtaining the video.
The sheriff refused to release the names of any of the deputies, but they are identified in the internal affairs report, which the Sheriff's Office released Tuesday in response to a public-records request.
Fortunato on Tuesday accused Lopinto of misleading the public with his statements about the investigation, saying that "truth is the hallmark of justice."
"Our sheriff must be truthful, fair, even-tempered and even-handed," Fortunato said. "When a politician running for sheriff starts his campaign by lying to the people, that's a good indicator of what may come and why we should be alarmed."
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Lopinto insisted he had not lied to the public or the media, adding he still has not seen a copy of the surveillance footage. Calling the matter a "non-story," he said he did not know the deputies had successfully copied the footage from the cafe until his office received a public-records request.
"It's not misleading," the sheriff said. "I opened up an investigation into myself."
The report shows Lopinto himself was interviewed by internal affairs investigators, and that he insisted "no one was 'ordered' to do anything by him as the sheriff."
The investigation determined that "everyone thought they were not in violation of department rules" and that "it appeared all officers acted with good faith in that they thought using breaks and early lunches would have been sufficient to cover the time they used in reference to this matter."
But the report differs drastically from Lopinto's public accounting of the incident. He said in an interview with The Advocate last year that he was not aware of the video and that he never asked his deputies to collect it on his behalf. His office later released a statement saying the deputies' actions "did not conform with best practices."
"I couldn't care less what they were talking about," Lopinto said then of Fortunato's meeting at the cafe. "But if one of my employees went over there trying to help my campaign, they shouldn't have gone. I expect more from my deputies. I expect them to know better."
Last month, when Lopinto announced that the internal affairs investigation had been closed, he issued a departmentwide memorandum reminding his employees that "political activities are forbidden during an employee's tour of duty."
"As sheriff," he wrote, "I understand that some may be interested in supporting a candidate for office, but any activities in this regard should be conducted while off duty."
Lopinto, a former deputy and state lawmaker, took office last summer following the unexpected retirement of Newell Normand. He also had served as an attorney for the Sheriff's Office before Normand named him chief deputy.