PARTSCH: Incompetence, corruption has unfortunately infested parish
By: Raymond Partsch III
For generations, the old cotton planters of Evangeline Parish were forced to deal with one of the most invasive and destructive insects ever to enter the parish -- the boll weevil. The small beetle which feasted on cotton buds and flowers would cost many a farmer of the ubiquitous Southern cash crop more than few years of harvests -- sometimes even their farm.
The boll weevil is no longer laying waste to swaths of cotton in the parish; in fact, there is no one left that produces the crop here, which still honors that farming tradition every October with the Louisiana Cotton Festival.
Yet, there is something that has been planted in this parish that is proving to be far more damaging and widespread than the boll weevil, and that is the vast corruption and incompetence of those who are supposed to be its leaders.
Back on December 19th, the U.S. Department of Justice released its findings from its 20-month investigation into both the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Ville Platte Police Department.
The DOJ cited both law enforcement agencies for performing illegal investigative holds on individuals. The report stated that citizens were “commonly detained for 72 hours or more” with no opportunity to contest the arrest. The report stated that between 2012 and 2014, EPSO performed more than 200 of these so-called detainments, and VPPD utilized this method more than 700 times.
The DOJ report that those “investigative holds” were “as a regular part of their criminal investigations” and that “both agencies acknowledged that they used holds to investigate criminal activity for as long as anyone at the agency can remember.”
This problem, of course, is that this method of policing violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution which prevents unreasonable searches and seizures.
VPPD Chief of Police Neal Lartigue and Evangeline Parish Sheriff Eddie Soileau have publicly acknowledged that both agencies are ready to make changes.
Lartigue told The Gazette in December, “When we noticed this, we started corrective action right away.... We are working on creating a more in-depth policy and procedure manual protecting the Fourth Amendment right of the citizens.”
Soileau stated, “This practice is what has been done for the last 40 years, and that is how a lot of officers were trained, so this is going to take some time, but we are working on fixing it.”
It is commendable that both leaders are pledging change, but what is not commendable is that it took a federal investigation to spur it on. Both men have been elected to their leadership positions for nearly a decade, yet neither knew that holding a citizen for 72 hours violated rights?
The Chief of Police and Sheriff, more than anyone in either department, should know the rights of the people and the legal limits of their departments’ reach when it comes to investigating crimes or possible crimes.
The excuse that this is how it has always been done simply doesn’t cut it. Both departments have the capacity to do research and training on modern policing. The Evangeline Parish District Attorney’s Office has plenty of books that explain what you can and cannot do as a law enforcement official.
Which leads to another concern: How was no one in the District Attorney’s Office aware of said practice, and more importantly why didn’t anyone take the lead on making sure that citizens’ rights were not being violated?
And now comes the fallout.
In less than a month since the report was released, 10 civil lawsuits have already been filed in federal court against VPPD about the holding practices. Then on Thursday, Ville Platte Defense Attorney Sonny Chapman filed a motion for a new trial for Samuel Anderson, who was convicted last year of first-degree murder and armed robbery.
Chapman’s grounds for the motion is that evidence now illegally deemed by the DOJ report was allowed during the trial.
Multiple cases could now possibly be retried, and individuals who were previously convicted of violent crimes could walk free because of these unconstitutional holding practices.
EPSO and VPPD both have had more than a few blunders in recent years.
EPSO’s former Chief Civil Deputy Rebecca Deviller plead guilty to theft and malfeasance in office for “diverting funds totaling at $108,976 to herself and possibly other EPSO employees for personal use,” according to a Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s report.
Deviller was the only one prosecuted.
VPPD officer Larry Fontenot was arrested by EPSO in August of 2015 for three counts of malfeasance in office, extortion and video voyeurism after he forced a young woman to expose herself so he could take photos of her, which he later showed to fellow on-duty officers.
Then there is Chateuse James, who worked as a juvenile officer for the Mamou Police Department. James pled guilty to two counts of malfeasance in office following incidents that occurred from 2002-03, involving her then boyfriend who was found guilty of unlawful carnal knowledge of a juvenile. It was ruled that James had brought home work paperwork (which she denied) that her boyfriend accessed for his crimes.
James would go on to complete her probation, and was eventually pardoned by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections in 2007. That pardon allowed James to be hired by VPPD in 2009, where she worked there for four years in the patrol division before being promoted to detective.
James tried to get hired on again in Mamou but public questioning ultimately led the council not to hire her back. That also resulted in her not getting her job back at VPPD.
Seemingly, there isn’t a corner of the parish that hasn’t been infested with corruption and incompetency.
In Turkey Creek, Mayor Heather Cloud lost her re-election bid in November of 2014 by a mere four votes. It was later revealed that Stanley Leger, who worked with Cloud’s opponents campaign, had given voters $15 dollars and voting cards to cast their ballot against Cloud.
Leger eventually pled guilty to the charge. After her case was dismissed twice by an Allen Parish Judge, Cloud successfully appealed the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Lake Charles to force another election, which she won in February of 2015.
Former Pine Prairie Mayor Terry Savant was accused of sexual harassment by a village hall employee last year, which resulted in him agreeing not to attend meetings or make contact with the employee, which meant that the village’s own mayor couldn’t perform village duties at the hall or even attend council meetings.
Let’s not forget about Mamou, where not one but two police chiefs (Gregory W. Dupuis and Robert McGee) were sent to federal prison in 2015 as a result of an investigation into the illegal use of excessive force -- in particular, tasering inmates -- in 2010.
The residents should receive better law enforcement and civic leadership throughout the parish. Asking Lartigue and Soileau to step down and allow someone else to step in and help repair the damage done between the agencies and the community and help properly train officers in both departments is not an unreasonable desire.
The problem is that when residents throughout the parish have the opportunity to force real change, they haven’t done so.
Even though it was proven in court that someone tried to fix an election, the residents of Turkey Creek still barely voted Cloud back in as mayor, as she won that election by a mere 16 votes.
In Mamou, the video of McGee tasering inmates was released the week of the 2014 runoff. Yet he still won the race by 84 votes as 580 residents believed that a man who tasers non-combative inmates was the best man to lead their police force.
And don’t forget that for all the complaining that has taken place in the community over the past year concerning EPSO, Soileau won 59 percent of the vote when he claimed his third term back in 2015. An election, mind you, that occurred after members of the community had already complained of the holding practice and after DOJ held a town hall meeting with hundreds in attendance to hear those grievances in public.
If the residents of Evangeline Parish want their hometowns to be known for smoked meat and swamp pop instead of corruption and incompetence, then they have to demand it.
If you don’t stand up and do something about it then you have no right to complain about it. That applies to modern justice just as well as it does to ridding your land of boll weevils.