“A Louisiana politician can’t afford to let his animosities carry him away, and still less his principles, although there is seldom difficulty in that department.”
– A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana, 1961.
On the morning of Dec. 16, 2017, the highest-paid elected official in Acadiana bundled up in a gray sweater and a pair of black gloves. It was 50 degrees, but in Louisiana, especially when it is damp outside, 50 can sometimes feel like it’s freezing. Brian Pope, the city marshal of Lafayette, needed warm clothes, because on that Saturday, he would be working outdoors, picking up trash and litter along the side of the road.
This was not a selfless act of public service or a staged photo-op for a political campaign, though the news cameras were definitely there.
Brian Pope was being punished.
He makes nearly $100,000 a year more than the governor by pocketing fees to which, according to the state attorney general’s office, he is not legally entitled.
He was sentenced to house arrest and forced to spend six figures for violating public records laws.
He was the target of a recall petition that received 4,000 more signatures than the nationally controversial campaign to incorporate the city of St. George in East Baton Rouge Parish. Put another way, there were 3,000 more people who signed a petition to oust him from office than who voted for him in the first place, yet, because of laws designed to protect the currency and power of incumbency, it still wasn’t enough to trigger a recall election.
The day after the recall failed, he had the co-chairman of the effort arrested for writing hot checks, worth less than $200 total, more than twenty years ago.
And, according to multiple sources, there is compelling circumstantial evidence that he was behind the recent arrests of a former police officer and his wife, an attorney who had, only days prior, filed a public records request with his office.
Now, he is facing seven felony counts, including two for perjury and five for malfeasance in office; the case is scheduled to go to trial in late February.
In a state that has always suffered from a surplus of corrupt politicians, the story of Brian Pope stands out as extraordinarily shameless and, at times, both comically and dangerously inept.
Sure, other politicians have been more corrupt. After all, former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin is currently sitting in a jail cell in Oakdale, at the same federal prison once home to former governor Edwin Edwards and, until recently, former congressman William Jefferson.
But Brian Pope is somehow more brazen and yet not nearly as sophisticated.
Chances are that if you’re not from Acadiana, you’ve probably never heard of him, and if you are from Acadiana, you’re probably tired of hearing about him.
During the past two weeks, The Bayou Brief spoke extensively with those who know the story best, some of whom requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. We attempted to reach out to Pope through his office and have yet to receive a response. When we followed him on social media, on which he is active daily, he blocked our accounts within minutes.
My colleagues and friends in the Acadiana media were not surprised. For several years, I was a regular freelance writer and contributor at The Independent, Lafayette’s late, great alt-monthly news publication, and for Pope, that is where the story begins.
On their website, under a page titled “News & Events,” Brian Pope’s office asserts it is “(c)ommitted to creating a culture of service, diversity and transparency.”
There are a grand total of three stories on the page: A reminder about a crime prevention fair, a notification about a public hearing, and a photo of Clay Higgins wearing the uniform of a deputy city marshal, above the caption, “Lafayette City Marshal (sic) would like to present our newest Reserve Deputy Clay Higgins in his Official Uniform.”
It’s objectively weird.
Pope’s decision to honor Higgins with a ceremonial title allowed the so-called “Cajun John Wayne,” who had resigned from the St. Landry Sheriff’s Office in a swirl of controversy, the ability to campaign for U.S. Congress while still wearing the uniform of a law enforcement officer, even if it was really just a costume. (In 2015, Pope gave Shaquille O’Neal the same exact title, which Shaq had already received years before, under the previous city marshal).
The page, which promises a “culture” of “transparency,” is a perfect metaphor for what has plagued Pope: There’s only one actual “news” story- an announcement that his office had apparently used its resources to bolster a political candidate.
Oh, and fittingly, it hasn’t been updated in nearly two years.
Indeed, Pope’s use of his office’s resources to help a friend’s campaign is the exact reason he is staring at seven felony indictments right now.
On Oct. 7, 2015 and in the middle of a heated race for Lafayette Parish sheriff, Brian Pope held a bizarre press conference at the city marshal’s office, in which he accused candidate Mark Garber, a Lafayette lawyer, “of inviting undocumented immigrants into the United States to file workman’s compensation claims without fear of deportation,” according to Christiaan Mader of The Independent.
Garber, who eventually won the race, had committed the unpardonable sin of appearing in an interview on Honduran television two years prior, during which he spoke about the American values of due process and habeas corpus and advised immigrants to seek legal counsel if they suffer a workplace injury. It was imminently reasonable and legally sound analysis and advice, a defense of the rule of law, but to Pope, it was a nefarious conspiracy.
His press conference seemed less like official government business and much more like a campaign stunt designed to benefit the other candidate in the race, Pope’s friend and Scott police chief Chad Leger, and the team at The Independent immediately suspected collusion between Leger’s campaign and Pope’s public office. The very next day, they filed a public records request seeking any and all e-mail correspondence between the two.
A week later, Pope’s lawyer, Charles K. Middleton, denied the request in a rambling and unwittingly incriminating letter, asserting, among other things, that the city marshal could not search through his own e-mails because he was, ironically enough, on vacation in Mexico, that the only responsive e-mail Pope had sent was a media advisory, and that any other e-mails on the subject were “private.”
But most troublingly, Middleton, an attorney who specializes in DUI cases (and who was indicted last year for lying to a grand jury about a motion he filed to unseal Garber’s divorce settlement), argued, as a “theoretical point,” that even if there were additional records, Pope would not have to release them because Garber, in speaking about legal rights to a Honduras television news program, had potentially committed a federal crime.
Watch the video yourself. Apparently, Pope and his lawyer believed it was a crime for someone to speak through a Spanish translator about the U.S. Constitution.
The city marshal’s office has one primary responsibility: They are tasked, by law, with executing orders and warrants issued by the Lafayette city court. During his press conference, Pope claimed that there were at least 661 illegal immigrants in Lafayette with outstanding warrants. “But it was ‘fake news,'” writes attorney Gary McGoffin, who represented The Independent. “Under oath… in a video trial deposition, (Pope) could not identify a single warrant for a single illegal alien, much less 661 — regardless of whether they were Hispanic/Spanish, white, black, Asian, Indian or ‘other.'”
Armed with Pope’s phony numbers, Louisiana attorney general Jeff Landry pilloried Lafayette as a “sanctuary city” and lobbied like-minded state legislators to pass a bill that would have stripped funding from the city. The legislation failed. Soon thereafter, Lafayette was quietly removed from an unofficial list of sanctuary cities in a way that allowed Landry to save face and, perhaps ironically, was due almost entirely to the advocacy of their newly-elected sheriff, Mark Garber.
The Independent decided to file suit against Brian Pope, and eventually, though not without some wild twists and turns, they won one of the biggest public records cases in state history and, only weeks before they closed their doors, the most coveted award from the Louisiana Press Association.
Three years after The Independent filed its first record request, their case against Pope now appears stronger than ever, and they have not relented, despite the fact that they are no longer in business.
In late December of last year, during a probation revocation hearing, the judge assigned to the case, Jules Edwards, told Pope, “Much of your conduct is mystifying.” The whole thing, the judge lamented, was a “very tortured experience.”
Brian Pope, the judge seemed to be implying, was his own worst enemy. It was solid advice, and it’s astonishing that the city marshal hasn’t done the sensible and dignified thing and simply resigned from office. Instead, he appears to have doubled-down on his most destructive impulses: Using his public office to exact personal revenge against his political opponents.
If he had recognized the embarrassment he was causing his community, Aimee Robinson would have never organized a recall campaign against him. All told, more than 21,000 Lafayette voters signed up to recall Pope, Robinson told The Bayou Brief, and although Pope, in 2014, had received slightly more than 18,000 votes in his first and only election, Robinson was still approximately 3,800 signatures shy of triggering a recall election.
“We struggled to get African-Americans to sign on,” Robinson said, “but not because they didn’t support what we were doing.” Robinson, who is white, was repeatedly warned that Pope, as city marshal, could potentially use the petition as a weapon against his opponents.
For those who recognize the racial inequities in the American judicial system and are statistically more likely to be targeted by law enforcement, it is imminently sensible to avoid affixing your name to a petition against the man responsible for executing arrest warrants, because that petition could easily be turned into a database and every name on it could become a person of interest.
“On the same day a drive to recall Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope ended unsuccessfully, the co-chairman of the movement was arrested by the City Marshal’s Office on 20-year-old misdemeanor charges,” The Daily Advertiser reported last month. “Steven Britt Wilkerson of Lafayette was arrested Monday on a 1997 Lafayette City Court warrant for four counts of issuing worthless checks, according to a city court administrator.”
There is no way to actually prosecute Wilkerson for allegedly writing bad checks as a college student; in his case, the statute of limitations expired eighteen years ago. This was political retribution, plain and simple, and it is stifling and dangerous and an unapologetically gleeful abuse of power. “Warrants of arrest do not expire until they are executed,” Pope told The Daily Advertiser.
Immediately after Wilkerson’s arrest, Robinson shredded the one and only copy of the recall petition. There were only two names that were officially associated with the effort to oust Brian Pope, Aimee Robinson and Steven Wilkerson, and one of them had just been arrested on specious charges. If Pope were in possession of a list of all 21,000 of his opponents, she realized, then he could do exactly what she had been warned he would do: Weaponize the recall petition against its signatories.
Last week, Pope’s lawyer, Brett Grayson, requested subpoenas against Robinson and Wilkerson in order to compel the production of the entire original petition. Grayson argued he needed the full petition to facilitate jury selection, which is absurd considering that he could easily ask potential jurors, “Have you ever signed a recall petition against any politician?”
Robinson’s instincts were right. “It’s unfortunate because I have destroyed those (documents),” she said at the time.
Some argue that the recall petition, although it was ultimately unsuccessful and entirely grassroots (raising a total of $600 in donations), was still a public record, and that its destruction may be a civil violation. I doubt a court would ever take up that case.
But, for many, it would be poetic justice if the closing chapters of the saga of Brian Pope included a few felony convictions and the illegal but noble destruction of a public record that he desperately wanted.
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