John Fortunato on Wednesday accused Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto of participating in a political "quid pro quo" during his time in the Legislature, with Lopinto and state Sen. Danny Martiny helping to secure raises for then-Sheriff Newell Normand even as Normand steered lucrative legal work their way.
With the election three days away, Fortunato released records outlining what he called a "sweetheart deal" through which Martiny's law firm has earned millions of dollars from the Sheriff’s Office while doing the agency's bidding in Baton Rouge.
Lopinto worked for Martiny's firm from 2012 to 2016 — when both men served in the Legislature — before becoming in-house counsel at the Sheriff’s Office under Normand.
Fortunato, a career lawman and first-time candidate for office, blasted the arrangement as the kind of "insider politics" he said he will put an end to should he prevail in Saturday's election.
Martiny, R-Metairie, has done work for the Sheriff's Office for more than 30 years, dating back to the early tenure of former Sheriff Harry Lee. The records released Wednesday show his firm has received at least $7.4 million in Sheriff's Office legal fees since 2005, an average of about $600,000 a year.
Both Martiny and Lopinto had a hand in bills that substantially, but indirectly, raised sheriffs' salaries for five straight years. In 2012, Lopinto backed a bill that, among other things, tied the salaries of sheriffs who meet training benchmarks to those of state judges.
The next year, Martiny sponsored and passed a bill that raised judicial salaries. District court judges, and therefore, some sheriffs, including Normand, received an immediate salary increase of 4 percent and then annual raises of 2.1 percent through 2017. The end result was a raise of about $15,000 annually.
This year, Martiny has sponsored another bill to raise judicial salaries 2.5 percent every year through 2022. The bill, if passed, also would raise the pay of sheriffs whose salaries are tied to those of the judges, including the sheriff of Jefferson Parish.
"This is a disgrace," Fortunato said. "You might as well say that Joe Lopinto and Danny Martiny were on two public payrolls at the same time. Martiny and Lopinto voted on the sheriff's pay raise, and Normand made sure they continued to collect attorneys' fees."
A Lopinto spokesman called Fortunato's remarks "pathetic" and "hypocritical," noting that Fortunato himself had hired Martiny to handle his two divorces.
"A man so ambitious he'll burn anyone to get a public office is not the temperament people want in a sheriff," the spokesman, Kevin Stuart, wrote in an email.
Jefferson voters will decide Saturday whether Fortunato or Lopinto will serve out the remaining two years of Normand's term. The candidates have criticized each other mercilessly in the waning days of the campaign.
Bill Allerton, a Fortunato consultant, said he was frustrated by the Sheriff's Office's sluggish response to public records requests seeking details on the money Martiny receives from the Sheriff's Office.
The Advocate filed a similar public records request last week but has not yet received a response.
But Lopinto said in a telephone interview that he considers Martiny's rate of $140 an hour for legal work to be a bargain, adding that his total fees are "insignificant" compared to the $125 million budget of the Sheriff's Office.
"I can't tell you the last trial that we've lost," Lopinto said. "All it takes is one (loss at a) trial and we could have a multimillion-dollar judgment against us."
Martiny, in an interview at the State Capitol, also said it would be ridiculous to characterize his work for the sheriff as a sweetheart deal. He said his fixed rate amounts to $100 less per hour than the state Attorney General's Office pays outside firms working for the state.
Martiny said he sponsored the legislation for the pay raises — which was endorsed by the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association — because he's the chairman of the commission that sets judicial compensation.
"I surely didn't do it to give the sheriffs a raise," he said.
Martiny also noted that the legal fees paid to his office don't all go to him. He said he employs between three and five other attorneys and has overhead costs.
"This isn’t something where they send me a check for $50,000 a month," he said. "I send them a bill for the amount of time I spend defending the Sheriff’s Office. And I do it very well. And my firm has done it very well."