A state appeals court says the St. Charles Parish sheriff must turn over more documents related to his travel to North Dakota to observe protests over a pipeline owned by the company that's also building the controversial Bayou Bridge line in Louisiana.
In 2016, Sheriff Greg Champagne was president of the National Sheriffs' Association and traveled to the Standing Rock reservation where demonstrators were protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Because the events provoked a large law enforcement response, Champagne said it was worthwhile for him to visit as president of the association, which paid for his two trips.
The sheriff's office also sent four deputies to perform routine law enforcement duties and a pair of staffers to record video of clashes among protesters and law officers. The handful of deployments, which lasted a few days to a week at a time, went through the normal process by which agencies can share resources, as happens after a hurricane or other overwhelming event, Champagne said.
The nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights filed a public records request seeking documents related to all the trips. Champagne's office sent about 60 pages of records, according to court filings, but the Center felt the sheriff withheld others.
Among the items requested: documentation of Champagne's travel on the Sheriffs' Association's dime, full receipts of the deputies' expenditures rather than summaries and the videos taken during the protests.
A district judge had sided with Champagne, but this week Louisiana's 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the sheriff's office to turn over more records.
A state judge dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday that accused St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne of refusing to release public records relat…
"The constitutional right of the public to access public records must be construed liberally in favor of free and unrestricted access to the records, and that access can be denied only when a law specifically and unequivocally provides otherwise. ... Whenever there is doubt as to whether the public has the right of access to certain records, the doubt must be resolved in favor of the public’s right of access," wrote appellate judge Marc Johnson.
The sheriff believes he was targeted and harassed because he was the head of the Sheriffs' Association during the Standing Rock protests and because he posted on Facebook that, having visited the site, he saw that some protesters were violent. After that post, he was "besieged" by records requests and threatening letters and phone calls, he said.
Champagne had argued that since the Sheriffs' Association paid for his travel — not taxpayers — those expenses are not public records, but the appellate panel disagreed. The sheriff said his staff would look for the videos they took at Standing Rock, but they turned the recordings over to local law enforcement and he isn't sure if there are still any copies in St. Charles.
Champagne said his office would comply with the request to send over every gas station and hotel receipt, but "I think they're going to be very disappointed when they get those records."
The Center for Constitutional Rights isn't looking for any specific evidence of wrongdoing; however, the refusal to release documents does raise questions, said attorney Pam Spees.
"It's a public transparency issue," she said. "They didn't bother searching for (the videos of clashes between protesters and law enforcement.) ... Who knows what's in that footage?"
Pipeline critics have long complained that law enforcement is too cozy with oil and gas companies. Spees said it's important to see Champagne's travel expenditures with the Sheriffs' Association because private security firms donate to the organization, including contractors who have done work with Energy Transfer Partners.
ETP built the Dakota Access pipeline and is currently constructing Bayou Bridge to carry oil between Lake Charles and St. James. The company has said it hoped to be operational by the end of the year, but officials did not return a Friday message on the pipeline's current status.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is one of several organizations fighting the pipeline in court. They recently represented landowners who sued the company for trespass, though a St. Martin Parish judge gave Bayou Bridge permission to seize the land and ordered they pay the landowners $450.
After spending $750 million to construct an oil pipeline that’s scheduled to open at the end of the month, the builders must spend another $45…
Champagne wondered aloud if the anti-pipeline crowd was just looking for a win and decided to take him to court rather than work with his office to get the documents he said he'd be happy to provide.
Spees remains skeptical of the sheriff's office's motivations. While her organization has a legal team to challenge agencies that don't provide public records, the average citizen probably doesn't have the time, means or know-how to do so, the attorney said.
"They withheld (the documents) with no basis," Spees said.