Ze Otavio’s illustration of Louisiana Congressman Clay Higgins. Image credit: Southern Poverty Law Center

The Scoundrel

On Feb. 23rd, 2016, Justin Tucker, an executive producer of “Duck Dynasty,” reached out to Higgins privately. “At the risk of sounding partial (sic), Sheriff Higgins, what you are doing for your community, the state of Louisiana, and all of Law Enforcement is a down right God appointed service!” Tucker wrote to Higgins, who was then a captain with the St. Landry Sheriff’s Department. “I’m always looking for a reason to get back down to the great state of Louisiana.”

In fairness, it is somewhat understandable that Tucker mistakenly assumed Higgins was the Sheriff and not a deputy. A week before, he’d become the subject of intense national criticism after calling a group of gang suspects “animals,” “thugs,” and “heathens” in his most recent Crime Stoppers segment, ostensibly on behalf of the State Police. The actual Sheriff, Bobby Guidroz, was not amused and had privately asked Higgins to “tone down his unprofessional and disparaging remarks.”

Higgins, meanwhile, was still focused on scoring a TV production deal. He’d envisioned his show to be a spin on the original “Unsolved Mysteries” with a twist of “The Hunt with John Walsh,” the CNN series that had been garnering solid ratings and warm reviews at the time.

“John Walsh is an actor,” Higgins emailed his talent scout. “I am an actual cop.”

He’d already determined who would make the cut: He and his patrol partner, 27-year-old Dustin Ardoin, would be the main characters, and around a dozen or so local law enforcement officers would be regulars, including his boss, Sheriff Guidroz. He’d even scripted the show’s opening: “On behalf of Saint Landry’s Law, I’m Captain Higgins, and this is AMERICAN JUSTICE.”

But less than a week after he received the enthusiastic email from the “Duck Dynasty” producer, Captain Higgins was suddenly out of a job and therefore out of a TV show.

Two weeks after his resignation, Higgins posted this video on his YouTube account in which he specifically addressed rumors that he had been gearing up for a television show.

But the entire premise of his series had hinged on him being an actual law enforcement officer. It was the only way he could be filmed on real-life raids, he’d once said, the only way the production could access the other “characters,” and, as he’d previously pointed out, the only way they could get away with showing him in costume. (Tellingly, only two months after he released the video above, Higgins declared his candidacy for Congress. Plan B.).

“Because I am an actual cop, our project could include the visually interesting aspect of my uniforms, depending on the interaction of the moment during each episode,” he wrote in a memo to his talent scout. “I have several uniforms, from Dress Blues bow-tie to Class A’s patrol to detective-tactical to full S.W.A.T. tactical. According to the need, they are each quite different, designed for a unique purpose. John Walsh just has his trademark leather jacket.”

Technically, Higgins resigned from his job with the St. Landry’s Sheriff’s Department, but Sheriff Guidroz would later make it abundantly clear that he had given him no other option, writing an expansive open letter that was later published in full on the front-page of the Abbeville Meridional. Higgins had been using the department’s resources—namely, his public email account—to negotiate a slew of private deals, which is why I was able to obtain his emails nearly four years ago.

All told, in a span of less than a year, there were 177 pages of business-related emails to or from ghiggins@slpsheriff.com, and because he never bothered to change the account’s default settings, many of his emails appeared under the name “Sheriff Dept. Mail”. For example, take this exchange between Higgins and his agent in which they discuss Donald Trump’s favorite television show, Fox & Friends:

Note: I have redacted out Ms. Brazell’s personal email address.

There were nearly 50 pages of emails about the launch of Higgins’s clothing and accessories business, Captain Higgins Gear, including, at one point, a discussion about the designs for children’s clothing. In addition to offering an “Uncly Clay” (yes, “Uncly”) t-shirt for newborns, Captain Higgins Gear also sold shot glasses and beer mugs, which were heavily promoted on Higgins’s social media accounts.

His private companies listed the address of the Sheriff’s Department in their original filings with the Louisiana Secretary of State.

“I would die rather than sacrifice my principles,” Higgins crowed when “explaining” his resignation. “I would leave my wife without a husband, my children without a daddy, rather than kneel to the very forces of evil that I have so long stood against.”

It was pure theater, Higgins as the noble martyr of his own imagination and Sheriff Guidroz awkwardly recast as an evil villain.

A few months later, during the thick of the campaign season, it’d be revealed that Higgins, who is now on marriage number four, owed his second wife nearly $150,000 in back child support (she filed an action against him in court only weeks before the election) and had once been accused of domestic violence by his first wife (who, following their divorce, died tragically in an automobile accident).

Higgins never denied that he was a scoundrel, and although his campaign made some noise about his opponent, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, being friends with the ex-wife he owed money, he didn’t deny that he did, in fact, owe her money. Indeed, the fact that Clay Higgins was a scoundrel had been foundational to the story he pitched to voters. The operative word, of course, is was.

He told anyone who would listen that he was living proof in the power of second chances. In fact, in one of the email exchanges about his clothing and accessories business, the future congressman and a consultant discuss the impossibility of “patenting” the word redemption, which Higgins had wanted emblazoned on as many things as possible, despite the fact that Redemption is already the name of a clothing company.

His agent included the feel-good story about how Higgins turned his life around when he was in his early forties in an executive summary she prepared for Captain Higgins Gear, underneath the heading “THE PERSONA.” It was a part of his shtick, or, if you prefer, a part of his gimmick.

Shortly after high school, as a peripatetic undergraduate at LSU (seven years, no degree), way before he discovered redemption, Higgins joined the Louisiana National Guard and worked as a military police officer before eventually settling down in Acadiana and taking a job with a car dealership.

Higgins claimed he’d given up a comfortable career with Sterling Automotive, where he said he was earning “$144,000 a year,” because the attacks of 9/11 pulled him back into public service, even though it meant he’d have to take a substantial pay cut. (This, you see, is why he couldn’t afford the child support payments). He said he’d attempted enlisting in the military, but because he failed a hearing test, he wouldn’t have been eligible for combat.

There’s a small problem with his story of patriotism and sacrifice, though. He hadn’t actually joined local law enforcement until a full three years after 9/11, and in other accounts, Higgins attributed his decision to apply for a job with the Opelousas Police Department to the friends he had on the force. It is also worth noting that almost immediately after he arrived at the OPD, Higgins helped lead a successful effort to nearly double the hourly wage of officers.

By the end of his tenure in St. Landry Parish, after he had become a social media celebrity, he was almost singularly focused on making money, and during his first campaign for Congress, in a conversation secretly recorded by his second ex-wife, he attempts to reassure her that once elected, he will finally be in a position to reimburse her for all of the child support payments he owed. The base salary for a member of the United States Congress is $174,000 a year, a full $30,000 more than he had ever made working as a car salesman.

It is worth mentioning that although Higgins had relinquished custody of the couple’s three children, there is no evidence that he was a “deadbeat dad.” Higgins’s first child, a daughter with his first wife, died in infancy. When he married his second wife, he adopted her daughter from a previous marriage before having two children together, a son and a daughter. His biological children have appeared with him at public events, and his son Joe, now 27, lived with him at his home in Port Barre from 2013 until late last year.

Ultimately, the story about Higgins’s child support debt didn’t make a dint in his poll numbers, in large part because it did appear to be politically-motivated. Not only was his ex-wife friends with his opponent, she was paralegal by profession. So, she knew that she could record her phone conversations with Higgins, even if he was unaware that he was being taped, and she also knew to hire the law firm of Bobby Jindal’s former executive counsel, Jimmy Faircloth, to throw some weight around. Moreover, all three of their children were now adults; at the time of the election, their youngest was 22. And the missed payments, which Higgins had attempted to lower in order to adjust for his diminished earning capacity as a police officer, had never been legal issue until the campaign.

Not surprisingly, the Angelle campaign denied they had anything to do with Higgins’s ex-wife’s sudden decision to take him to court, but the story had their fingerprints all over it. In some respects, they’d actually managed to help Higgins reinforce his story of redemption and instead of the man who owed nearly $150,000 in back child support looking like the bad guy, for many voters, it was Angelle who looked like the sleaze.

It was a massive strategic blunder, particularly considering that there were legitimate questions with another aspect of Higgins’s life that Angelle should have been asking, issues that a small handful of us in the “liberal media” were trying our best to bring to the public’s attention. When Higgins left the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Department, as most now know—four years later, it wasn’t the first time that he had been effectively forced to resign from a job in law enforcement.

But before we get to that story, I hope you’ll indulge me for a brief digression. To understand Higgins’s record as a law enforcement officer and why his actions and beliefs about race and those protesting for accountability in the police killings of unarmed Black Americans, it’s necessary to consider the complicated racial politics and the peculiar history of the place that first made him a star.

Next page: St. Landry’s Law