"It made the public feel as though there was a cloud over our head, and there was, you know."
Irish poet Oscar Wilde once said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." The next question posed to Parish President Kenny Matassa was about publicity. Former Governor Huey Long is often credited for, "Say anything you want about me as long as you spell my name right." Matassa knew the quote. He laughed.
"I'll tell you what it's not good for," he started, "it's not good for the family. I don't care so much what you say about me, but when it starts to brush off on the family, which it does, it's not good."
Like him or not, Matassa was acquitted of a bribery charge on July 11. The trial was two years in the making. This week Matassa finally spoke about the ordeal.
"I thought from the beginning that it was a political scam to hurt me and get me out of office," Matassa said. "I've been doing my job from day one. I never didn't show up to the office with all this stuff going on."
Matassa added that he hasn't been treated poorly while out in the public. That may seem odd since one look at the Pelican Post or its Facebook page, which had negativity about Matassa smeared throughout, would lead one to believe otherwise.
Users of the sight typically leave public comments about corruption in Ascension Parish and general dismay. Matassa claimed it is a small group of political opponents. He said people report that they read it like the funny papers.
"This whole time the whole thing's been going on, everybody that I would run into would say 'I'm praying for you,' and 'I want you to fight,'" Matassa said. "I said, 'I'm not looking to resign! I promise you I didn't do anything wrong!'
"One person, one time in Walmart, didn't want to shake my hand," he said. "One person out of hundreds everyday! Most said, 'Hang in there, you're doing a good job.' So, if there was that much negativity I didn't see it. Now, do I read Facebook and all of that? No.
" . . . It made the public feel as though there was a cloud over our head, and there was, you know."
But Matassa ideally wishes to be seen as a fair person who loves Ascension Parish and loves working for the parish.
He talked about his accomplishments as parish president. Whatever side you're on, it cannot be denied that Matassa has accomplished a few things.
"The operation hasn't been affected one iota," he said.
For instance, he began a $45 million-dollar road improvement program known as Move Ascension. Move Ascension is responsible for the first new road construction in the parish in 20 years.
"The number one problem is traffic, but safety is another big issue," Matassa said. "Like for Highway 930--we've been dealing with that road for seven to eight years. We're finally moving on that."
He also wanted to mention getting the Army Corps. of Engineers to approve the Laurel Ridge Levee Extension after 10 years of analysis. "We got the permit," he said. "It's not going anywhere."
Additionally, he launched the Citizens Service Center, which is a modern call center to keep clearer record of individual calls for service. "It's for efficiency," Matassa said. "So I can tell the public, 'Wait a minute, you did call once. They called you back.' And have a timeline because this day and age you have nothing unless you have documentation."
Moreover, Matassa is also implementing parish-wide technology upgrades such as new software systems to promote greater transparency and accountability. There's also a new road overlay program. There's been a greater effort to fight blighted property owners. There are sewer upgrades coming along Highway 22. There's also a new $4.5 million athletic complex at Lamar Dixon under Matassa's leadership.
"This is a very demanding job," he said. "I've probably dealt with ten different things this morning." It was 11 a.m. "That's just the nature of the job. It's about doing what's right with dollars and cents for the people.
"You know, we're the fastest growing parish. You don't build a new road overnight. Ninety-nine percent of our major roads are state highways that should've been built four-laned years ago . . . My thing is deal with the worst problems first."
Back to the trial, Matassa was very thankful towards Attorney Lewis Unglesby whom he said was a very smart man. A smart man, who is still tallying up his hours. He laughed. Matassa claimed Unglesby said he thought it wouldn't get past a grand jury.
"But like they say you can indict a ham sandwich," Matassa said. "And there's nothing grand about a grand jury. [Unglesby] said, 'Let me worry about the law. You take care of the parish. I'll let you know when to start worrying.' And he never told me one day to worry."
Matassa brought up how his accuser Wayne Lawson lied about his residence on the stand during the preliminary stages of the trial. Judge Kliebert had earlier testimonies placed into record so that the trial was able to move swiftly, which it did at one-and-a-half days.
" . . . this has been going on for two years! Now, I'm no saint. I'm not a perfect person, but look at my accuser. To me, it should've went to court in six months or something, if that's what you want to do."
Furthermore, Matassa said that the current form of government is not perfect, but that it is the best we have. He was talking about A Better Ascension. He said that six people and a parish manager controlling the government would have looked more like the old police jury system.
"It's checks and balances," he said. "You see this seat right here? Put a ten-million dollar man here and he still won't get as many roads done as I'm doing. We've got a good relationship with our delegation. They're trying hard to get us some dollars."
Corruption in the parish is the last thing that was discussed. The truth is that the Parish President cannot take money out of the budget and throw it anywhere he wants. The budget is approved by the council. Contracts are approved by the council. The meetings are public and on TV. Every aspect of purchasing is done by state procurement laws.
Everyone is logged for eternity on Facebook.
"It's a farce," Matassa said. "There is no way we are doing anything corrupt in this building or in this parish. If an employee does something that's not right I don't know about it, but we've got good employees and supervisors.
"I always say double check them, double check them, double check them. People ask me to do stuff every now and then on their property. I'll tell them straight up there's no way, but I've got friends too. I will ask someone to do it or I will pay out-of-pocket to have something done. Years ago it was pretty open that parishes did it, but we don't. And I don't think any others do it."
He sighs. "You know, as far as to say things are corrupt show me what's corrupt. What's the deal here, you know what I mean?"
The conversation eventually went back to Matassa's Italian heritage and Donaldsonville roots before he excused himself for another meeting. He earnestly said that his background is not part of the mafia but working class Italians. He talked about church at St. Theresa, which inevitably led to him speaking highly of his friend Chef John Folse.
He looked better--more relaxed than at this time last year. Things seemed much lighter in the atmosphere of the president's office inside the Ascension Parish Government Complex. Matassa interviewed for over an hour, shook hands and exited.