Matassa trial ends in favor of the defense

Greg Fischer Editor-in-chief
Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa addresses reporters outside the courtroom after the bribery trial that ended is his acquittal.

THE ISSUE: While remaining at work for the past two years, Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa faced a bribery charge for persuading a man to drop out of the 2016 Gonzales City Council race.

LOCAL IMPACT: Some might say his court case polarized the community. However, the Louisiana Attorney General prosecutor Jeff Traylor failed to prove that Matassa committed bribery.

The alleged bribery by Parish President Kenny Matassa and Olin Berthelot to get Wayne Lawson to drop out of the Gonzales City Council race in 2016 culminated last week in a trial that lasted less than two days and ended in an acquittal for the defense.

The much anticipated, polarizing case brought before 23rd Judicial District Judge Thomas Kliebert, Jr. ended in a loud applause from the large group present in court to support Matassa.

The Louisiana Assistant Attorney General Jeff Traylor tried to make the case that Matassa and Berthelot offered Lawson $1,050 dollars, a parish job, and services to fix a broken food truck in exchange for his leaving the race.

The crux of Traylor's prosecution may have lied in admittance to evidence a recording said to prove the meetings between the three men were unlawful in nature. He never did play the tape in its entirety to the courtroom.

Defense attorney Lewis Unglesby questioned Lawson the first day of the trial because Lawson appeared to have wiped his cell phone, a Samsung Galaxy S6, of all text messages before handing his cell phone, which contained the recording, over to the police.

However, in favor of the defense on the second day of the trial Unglesby pulled out copies of text messages Lawson had sent back and forth to Matassa during the week in question.

Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office Detective Mike Brunner was called to the stand by Traylor to show that a new Olympus recorder that could not be tampered with also contained the recording said to show that a bribery was evident.

But Judge Kliebert stuck tightly to a transcript of a phone recording where Matassa says Lawson had a job with the parish whether or not he decides to stick to running for Gonzales City Council. In Kliebert's final words he said that it was evident that Berthelot had loaned money to Lawson numerous times in the span of their friendship spanning decades, and this did not appear to be different.

Kliebert said it was not ever in question that Matassa and Berthelot advised Lawson to drop out of the race, but nowhere in the evidence did either man say, "drop out or else we will not help you."

Moreover, investigator Ike Vavasseur, who made the arrest on Matassa, was called to the stand by Traylor. Vavasseur testified to finding an envelope containing a job application, an envelope of money, and a form to drop out of the council race at Bayou Financial, Berthelot's business, while carrying out a search warrant by Judge Tess Stromberg.

Unglesby asked, "$1050, a job application with a yellow sticky note bearing Wayne Lawson's name, but no one ever talked to Kenny Matassa?"

On the second day, Wade Petite was called to the stand. He testified that when Lawson originally approached him with the information of an alleged bribery that he thought a "bear trap" was being laid before him. He said that was his nature.

Petite also said the reason he did not initially go to the police was because he believed they might conspire to sweep everything under the rug.

Unglesby asked Petite if he told Matassa's Communications Director Kyle Gautreau at the Parish Finance Meeting the night before that it's "a lot of water under the bridge . . . if Kenny walks, if he doesn't walk." Furthermore Petite testified that "I think [Lawson] used me for his own purposes."

When Unglesby cross-examined Petite's friend, insurance agent Dustin Clouatre, he used the word "hustled" to describe Lawson's treatment of Petite and Clouatre, who came up with a $1,200 dollar loan for Lawson the week of all the activity, July 2016.

Two years later, and Lawson has not paid them back any portion of the money.

Clouatre, who originally posted the "Matassa Tapes" to Youtube testified to his feelings about everything at the time, "I think it's kind of like watching a train wreck is what I said."

Berthelot's testimony, which had been painted by the media prior to the trial as a damning move for Matassa did not quite go in favor of the prosecution.

In fact, Berthelot testified that Lawson had reached out to him twice since the famous Pelican Post blog was published to tell him he never meant to take it this far. He said the only reason they advised Lawson not to run was because he did not feel like campaigning for Bourque. Lawson ended up losing the race to Bourque in a landslide, as was predicted by the two men.

Petite had earlier testified that he was mad at Berthelot that particular week for disrespecting his wife at an event.

Matassa, wearing black sunglasses in front of multiple cameras and reporters outside the courthouse after the trial said that the devil does not sleep, but that faith in God got him through this.