HOUMA, La. — The Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office said Friday it will close a criminal defamation investigation into a blog that has criticized Sheriff Jerry Larpenter’s public dealings.
The move comes after the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal Thursday ruled that an Aug 2 search warrant to raid a Houma police officer’s was unconstitutional. The appeals court found the criminal defamation statute can’t be used to attack speech about public officials and private individuals engaged in public affairs.
Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office said Friday that Landry would not appeal.
Terrebonne Parish’s insurance agent, Tony Alford, had filed the defamation complaint against Officer Wayne Anderson. A blog — ExposeDAT — was writing about the business dealings of local officials including Larpernter, Parish President Gordy Dove and District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. Sheriff’s deputies raided Anderson’s house, seizing computers and phones.
Officer Wayne Anderson and his wife Jennifer have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Larpenter over the raid, although they deny authoring the blog.
“Justice has prevailed,” Jerri Smitko, the Andersons’ attorney, told the Houma Courier. “It sends a message to those involved that they cannot violate citizens’ rights with impunity, and hopefully it will make the citizens of our parish less fearful about speaking out against matters of public concern.”
Smitko retrieved the Andersons’ phones and computers Friday.
Jennifer Anderson lost her job after Larpenter discussed her criminal record on a Houma cable television channel. Wayne Anderson was suspended with pay from the police department but returned to work earlier this month.
“The fallout for this family personally, the emotional toll it’s taken on them and the negative consequences regarding their jobs have been vast,” Smitko told WWL-TV.
The family plans to seek additional damages now that the search warrant has been thrown out.
Loyola Law Professor Dane Ciolino said he believes the family has strong claims that their First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated and he expects the sheriff’s office to have to pay damages.
Alford’s firms broker coverage for the Sheriff’s Office and parish government. He contested a claim that Larpenter continued to pay broker fees to him even as the sheriff’s wife, Priscilla, makes a six-figure salary running Alford’s office. Alford said the sheriff’s brokerage contract is with a firm owned by his business partner, Christian Lapeyre, but he acknowledged that as Lapeyre’s partner, he does share in the proceeds.
Larpenter said Thursday evening that he hadn’t seen the ruling and would wait to comment after he’d seen it.
Alford said he’s accepted the ruling.
“That’s what they thought, and we have to live with that ruling,” he said. “That’s why we have a court system. We’re moving on right now.”