DONALDSONVILLE, La. — Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa, a former parish administrator and Gonzales city councilman, took office in January after winning a runoff election with Gonzales surveyor Clint Cointment.
But his first days in office saw him facing criticism and being in the middle of a lengthy bribery-allegation case.
According to a report on TheCreole.com, Matassa allegedly bribed Gonzales City Council candidate Wayne Lawson to stay out of the race and offered him a parish job, money and support in a future election, according to recordings provided by Lawson and Wade Petite, owner of the online newspaper Pelican Post.
Matassa argued that he was just offering his friend advice and a loan to repair his trailer, according to his attorney, Lance Unglesby.
Lawson and Petite shared a recording of the conversation on the Post website in August. The conversation was between Matassa, Lawson and Gonzales businessman Olin Berthelot.
Nearly 200 days since the recordings were checked for authenticity, the investigation and case are ongoing.
Lawson claimed he did not take the alleged bribe and stayed in the race. He lost to incumbent Neal Bourque in the November elections.
Meanwhile, the bribery allegation trial against Matassa was put on hold in November, and the jury was sent home after the 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin excused his office from the case the day before after it was discovered that Assistant District Attorney Charles Long was a contributor to Matassa’s campaign.
Babin recused his office the day before the trial because some of his staff donated to Matassa’s campaign. Long gave $5,000 to Matassa, according to campaign reports.
“The district attorney’s office properly recused itself to assure that there was no appearance of impropriety in the investigation or presentation of the case to the grand jury,” legal-ethics expert Dane S. Ciolino, a professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans, told the Louisiana Record.
The investigation was handed over in its entirety to Attorney General Jeff Landry's office, but the grand jury was set to expire that week, which would not have left enough time to present the evidence before end of the year.
Landry's office has offered no details on when the grand jury will reconvene.
“A new grand jury was put place on Nov. 18,” Ruth Wisher, Landry' press secretary, told the Louisiana Record.
And as far as when the proceedings will take place, Wisher said the office does not comment on grand-jury proceedings.
“A charge of bribery is very serious allegation against a public official. However, it is not a prosecution that must be initiated by grand-jury indictment,” Ciolino said. “The case could be charged by a district attorney’s office or by the attorney general alone without using the grand-jury process."