Joe Lopinto (left) and John Fortunato

Joe Lopinto (left) and John Fortunato

A basic requirement for any Jefferson Parish sheriff is evidently a knack for coffee-shop political intrigue.

Newell Normand showed he had it before stepping down last summer to host a radio talk show and appointing Joe Lopinto as his interim successor.

The considerable advantage that Lopinto thus enjoys as he seeks to make the job his own in this year's election has been somewhat vitiated by a failure to cope with plots and stratagems hatched over latte.

When Lopinto's time as sheriff is up, moreover, he likely won't be following Normand's footsteps a second time. Caught lying to the press about the latest instance of coffee-shop political espionage, Lopinto said we were pursuing a “non story.” If he believes that, giving him a job in the news business would make as much sense as entrusting public safety to yours truly.

OK, Lopinto couldn't possibly have believed it. A public official in a jam just has to wriggle the best he can. As soon as he put the phone down, Lopinto must have known that his mugshot would be on the front page the next day with banner headlines and pictures of documents proving that the version of events he had consistently fed to the media bore no relation to the truth.

Records: Jefferson Sheriff Joe Lopinto told deputies to get cafe video, contrary to claims

The Nixonian rule was proven once again; the cover-up was more damaging than the original offense.

The sheriff is generally a parish's most powerful official as not only top cop, but jailer, tax collector and issuer of all manner of licenses and permits. The public preference for veracity in political candidates tends to be at its strongest when time comes to choose a sheriff.

Lopinto must therefore have hurt his chances with a series of whoppers about a video of a coffee-shop powwow his rival for the sheriff's job, John Fortunato, held in October. Fortunato, who retired as a Sheriff's Office colonel last year, was chewing the fat with two other former members of the department's top brass, when a current deputy, Sgt. Rodney Naumann happened by. A few days later, he alerted Lopino, who asked for “a picture” of the meeting, according to a just-released internal report. But soon word came down that Lopinto had escalated his demand, and Naumann tried to copy the shop's surveillance tape. When the task proved beyond him, officers from the Sheriff's Office geek department were called in to produce the desired dope on the competition.

WWL-TV: John Fortunato says he'd have fired JPSO Sheriff Joe Lopinto for 'lying to the public'

Yes, Virginia, all these officers were off the clock throughout, and just wanted to do a favor for their old pal Joe Lopinto. It probably never even occurred to them that they have no civil service protection and the sheriff can hire and fire as he pleases.

Regardless, opposition research, even at its sneakiest, is not a hanging offense — indeed, it is just part of the game — so there was no reason for Lopinto to dissemble when a TV station got wind of the surveillance tape. But he claimed that Naumann and the other deputies had secured the video on their own initiative in a misguided attempt to help out a pal. Lopinto did not identify those deputies at the time, but he said he was so displeased that they would be subjected to “counseling.”

When Lopinto's misrepresentations came to light, Fortunato was not about to miss the opportunity to issue a press release on the need for integrity in law enforcement. Press releases are Fortunato's forte, for he has been office spokesman for 30 years. Lopinto, meanwhile, after a brief stint as a deputy some 20 years ago, became a lawyer and served three terms in the Legislature before Normand in 2016 made him his top deputy. Fortunato certainly needed help to turn the campaign his way; Lopinto is doing his best to provide it.

When Normand was sheriff, he came out against then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who was in the middle of a doomed campaign for governor. When Normand and some allies were in the middle of a coffee-shop confabulation, they spotted a customer trying to tape them. He fled, but one of Normand's companions was veteran private detective Danny Denoux, who reckons he can find anyone, anywhere. He certainly had no trouble finding the eavesdropper, who was on Vitter's payroll, behind a nearby house. That's how you handle coffee-shop politics.

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