District Director for U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins at the Center of Alleged Human Trafficking Ring

Pictured above: Pingjuan Xia and Jerod Prunty at D.C. Mardi Gras (Source: @PutLouisiana1st, Twitter), Xia and Prunty were arrested in Feb. 2019 (Source: Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Department).

Clay Higgins (R- LA-03) reintroduced himself to the nation last week, swapping out his “Cajun John Wayne” costume with an oversized vest and tie and using his perch on the House Oversight Committee to ask former Trump fixer and personal lawyer Michael Cohen a series of baffling questions that made it abundantly clear the congressman had not done his homework.

“Clay Higgins questioning Cohen and attending his senior prom in the same day,” joked Aaron Eisenberg on Twitter.

In fact, Higgins claimed he never really even knew of Cohen until that very morning, which may seem utterly impossible to believe about any sentient American adult, let alone any member of Congress.

But for those who have followed Higgins’s career and ascendance to elected office, his sartorial choices are unsurprising, and his claim of ignorance is plausible.

Higgins capped off the day with an appearance on CNN, carrying with him a six-pack of Yuengling that he pledged to split with anchor Chris Cuomo. (Last year, in an interview with LaPolitics, Higgins consumed multiple beers while on camera).

During the Cohen hearing, Higgins, a former sheriff’s deputy who first rose to fame after a series of Crime Stoppers videos he recorded went viral online, said, among other things, that he had arrested “thousands of men” during his stints with the tiny Opelousas Police Department and St. Landry Sheriff’s Department. The claim was so manifestly absurd that it was impossible not to take the bait: Almost immediately, the Louisiana Democratic Party pounced and filed a series of public records requests with his former employers.

It was also particularly ironic.

Only a week before, one of the congressman’s top aides, District Director Jerod Prunty, tendered his resignation after being charged and arrested with two counts of “pandering,” which, as it is apparently being applied in this situation, is a euphemism for human trafficking. The state’s most recent iteration of the statutory definition of pandering dates back to 1978; it provides for significant civil penalties and mandatory jail time. The statutes on human trafficking were only codified in 2005 and are effectively a way to heighten penalties in certain circumstances, particularly when a victim is under the age of 21. La. Rev. Stat. § 14:84(A) defines pandering as “any of the following intentional acts”:

(1) Enticing, placing, persuading, encouraging, or causing the entrance of any person into the practice of prostitution, either by force, threats, promises, or by any other device or scheme.

(2) Maintaining a place where prostitution is habitually practiced.

(3) Detaining any person in any place of prostitution by force, threats, promises, or by any other device or scheme.

(4) Receiving or accepting by a person as a substantial part of support or maintenance anything of value which is known to be from the earnings of any person engaged in prostitution.

(5) Consenting, on the part of any parent or tutor of any person, to the person’s entrance or detention in the practice of prostitution.

(6) Transporting any person from one place to another for the purpose of promoting the practice of prostitution.

Prunty’s arrest was the result of an expansive, 17-month long investigation undertaken by the Lafayette Sheriff’s Department. “Deputies served warrants at five massage parlors and three residences in a coordinated sting on Feb. 12, (Sheriff Mark) Garber said,” according to The Daily Advertiser. “The raid was the result of the first phase of the investigation, he said, and it’s not over.”

Prunty was one of nine people charged and arrested as a part of the investigation, which also resulted in the seizure of $50,000 in cash and multiple vehicles, and he appears to have been closely involved in the alleged operation. He shares a home on the 200 block of Chimney Rock Boulevard in Lafayette with another one of the alleged co-conspirators, Pingjuan Xia, who was booked on charges of “pandering, prostitution by massage and massage parlor prohibited sexual conduct,” according to The Advocate.

Late Saturday, an anonymous Twitter account, @PutLouisiana1st, posted a photograph the user claimed to be of Xia and Prunty together at D.C. Mardi Gras.

The Bayou Brief independently confirmed the photograph’s authenticity but has, thus far, been unable to ascertain whether it was taken in 2018 or 2019. We have no knowledge of the identity of the person or persons behind @PutLouisiana1st, which, curiously, only follows one account on Twitter, Louisiana state Rep. Chad Brown, a Republican from Plaquemine. (Update: They have since unfollowed state Rep. Brown).

Regardless of whether it was taken this year or last year, the photograph suggests that Xia and Prunty were more than roommates and that Prunty used his contacts and his position as a congressional staffer to introduce Xia to some of the most politically powerful officials and most influential lobbyists in Louisiana, while they were both under investigation for their involvement in a human trafficking ring.

Rep. Higgins may have only learned about Michael Cohen last week, but he must have known who Pingjuan Xia was for months, if not years, prior to her arrest. And of course, he hired Jerod Prunty, who, like Higgins, is a former sheriff’s deputy.

We also reached out to attorney Josh Guillory, who is referenced in the tweet and who ran against Higgins, a fellow Republican, last year. Guillory had been completely unfamiliar with the details of the allegations, but he expressed his total confidence in the men and women conducting the investigation. “I trust in the judicial system,” he said. “This will work itself out.”

There are reasons to believe that Higgins’s office is currently in full-on panic mode, though the cause for concern has little to do with Higgins’s cameo performance during the Cohen hearing. The worry, instead, is about how, exactly, “this will work itself out.”