GONZALES — Murphy Painter has a strong chance of proving that Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment and two others tried to sully his reputation during the 2019 election.
That’s according to ad hoc Judge A. Bruce Simpson, who rejected motions to oust Cointment, businessman-politico Dustin Clouatre and website editor Wade Petite from the explosive defamation case.
Filed in mid-October in Gonzales, the claim accuses Cointment, Clouatre, Petite and others of plotting to deceptively edit and publish on the latter’s website — shortly after the parish presidential primary — an audio clip that cast Painter in a bad light.
In the recording, Painter allegedly admits to knowing about a Sheriff’s Office coverup of child rapes in the early 1990s.
A subsequent grand jury impaneled by District Attorney Ricky Babin found no evidence of a coverup. Painter, a former chief sheriff’s deputy in Ascension, wasn’t even working for the sheriff at the time of the allegations.
Painter, whom Babin called to testify before the grand jury about the website’s claims, dropped out of the 2019 runoff, allowing Cointment to win.
In a series of rulings in late June and early this month, Judge Simpson agreed to throw from the suit Babin and Clouatre’s employer and the parish government insurance agent, Hughes Insurance Services.
But the judge — assigned to the case by the Louisiana Supreme Court after Painter asked to remove all local jurists — determined that the plaintiff presented enough evidence to keep the three others on as defendants.
“For these reasons, I conclude that Murphy J. Painter Sr. has established a probability of success of proving Clint Cointment conspired with Wade Petite and Dustin Clouatre to defame him,” Simpson, a retired Lafourche Parish judge assigned to the suit, wrote.
The ruling doesn’t mean Painter has won. But it does mean there’s enough for the case to proceed, and that Painter will likely win if he can prove his claims at trial.
Painter’s attorney, Kim Segura Landry, said the ruling also means she can start gathering more evidence through what’s known as “discovery.”
In civil litigation, subpoena-empowered discovery can be a powerful investigative tool for digging up private records and interviewing key witnesses.
Defendants in the suit have denied the allegations, initially calling them baseless, a series of events spuriously strung together to cast them as a conspiracy.
Cointment, for example, has denied working with Petite’s website or any other news outlet during the campaign. Petite, for his part, has repeatedly said he wasn’t working with Cointment and no one tells him what to write.
Timothy Pujol, Cointment’s attorney, said this week that he and his client “strongly disagree with Judge Simpson’s ruling” and plan to appeal it. And Cointment, he said, said again that he “categorically denies having anything at all to do with publication of the tapes by Petite and Clouatre.”
Landry said she also plans to appeal some of Simpson’s rulings, the last of which began circulating earlier this week.
In reviewing Cointment’s challenge to the suit, Simpson had been asked to weigh the strength of Painter’s initial allegations against the free speech protections afforded to news media.
The type of free speech at issue can be some of the most protected under the U.S. Constitution from government censorship or other actions that “chill,” or deter, publication — political speech during an active campaign about a public figure who is running for office.
Cointment’s lawyers argued Painter must prove not only that the claims were false but that they were published with “actual malice” and damaged his reputation.
Among Cointment’s defenses, his attorneys say Painter suffered no damage because he dropped out of the election — and didn’t actually lose — and that he failed show it was Cointment who made any statements about Painter.
But, in ruling for Painter on July 5, Judge Simpson found Painter’s allegations, if proven, would likely meet the high standard of “actual malice.”
In testimony cited by the judge, Painter claimed Petite in October 2018 offered him a job in Cointment’s administration if he stayed out of the race and that Cointment had authorized him to make that offer.
Three months later, Painter sent Cointment a text message announcing his candidacy and asking to meet “as a gentleman’s gesture,” the judge wrote.
Cointment didn’t respond. But Petite did, texting Painter “within minutes.”
Petite acknowledged the earlier text to Cointment, saying the parish president had enlisted him to decide whether he should meet with Painter. Petite wanted to know what the topic of the discussion might be before he could authorize Painter’s meeting with Cointment.
“This testimony, if accepted as true by the finder of fact, would show an extensive degree of coordination between Wade Petite and Clint Cointment to advance the candidacy of Mr. Cointment,” Judge Simpson wrote.
With that information, Simpson added, a jury or a judge at trial may conclude the degree of coordination “supports a finding that Wade Petite and Clint Cointment conspired to damage the reputation” of Painter.
Painter claims to have the texts.
Scott Sternberg, a lawyer who routinely represents The Advocate in defamation cases and other disputes, said the type of free speech-based challenge that Cointment filed is one that the newspaper routinely uses as an initial step to rebut libel claims over its reporting.
When plaintiffs lose that kind of motion, it likely spells an end to their defamation claims. In Painter’s case, he didn’t lose.
“I mean, this is a significant ruling in this case,” Sternberg said, “a very significant ruling.”
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