GONZALES — District Attorney Ricky Babin cleared two Ascension Parish planning commissioners accused of extortion by the owner of Houmas House Plantation.
Babin said he has been meeting with Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley about the allegations for the past two weeks and made the determination Tuesday, closing the case.
“I don’t think it rises to the level of any kind of criminal conduct,” Babin said.
In a July 12 letter sent to Ascension Parish planning officials, Kevin Kelly, Houmas House’s owner, alleged Planning Commissioners Daniel Satterlee and Milton Clouatre Jr. asked him to seek political support to abolish a parish development ordinance in exchange for approval of his project.
Babin said that for an abuse of office or extortion charge, there has to be an exchange of something of value.
“Offering to do something for somebody for yourself is a crime, not some public policy issue,” Babin said.
Kelly’s letter does not include allegations that Satterlee or Clouatre sought personal benefits, such as money.
Babin said that Kelly may have a civil claim or some kind of ethics claim “but I don’t enforce those.”
Wiley agreed with Babin’s decision, saying Tuesday that his office took the allegations seriously “but at the end of the day … it didn’t rise to that (criminal) level.”
Satterlee and Clouatre were never arrested over the allegation.
Clouatre said Wednesday a statement would come after he consults with his attorney.
“In my opinion, our character has been wrongfully defamed by Mr. Kelly, by his false accusations of blackmail and vote buying when, in truth, all we were trying to do was help that man and follow the law,” Satterlee said in an email.
Clouatre and Satterlee said Wednesday they may issue a joint press release later.
The Planning Commission placed Houmas House back on its agenda for 6 p.m. Wednesday to review the historic home after the issue was pulled last month amid the allegations.
At issue in the dispute is whether the parish’s planned unit development overlay district should apply to Houmas House — in addition to a parish historic district overlay.
The Houmas House tract is in both.
Satterlee and Clouatre have been critics of PUDs and the PUD overlay and have pushed to abolish both.
PUDs are a flexible style of development that can include residential and commercial development.
The PUD overlay calls for the use of PUDs.
Kelly said Wednesday he won’t take any other action until after next week’s planning commission meeting.
If his request for an exemption to the PUD rules is rejected, Kelly said, he will consider his options.
The Houmas House owner said he is optimistic that his request will be approved.
“I really think everything is going to come out okay next week,” Kelly said.