Verdigets’ recusal in State v. Matassa delays trial of Berthelot

Soon to be judge, Jason Verdigets

Saturday marked one year since Olin Berthelot (and Kenny Matassa) were charged with Election Offenses; Bribery by an Ascension Parish Grand Jury, the second one scheduled to consider evidence against them after a continuance from November 15, 2016.  State of Louisiana versus Olin G. Berthelot was scheduled for Jury Trial tomorrow, but a covert (in the sense that the public had no foreknowledge) hearing on Berthelot’s Motion to Recuse Judge Jason Verdigets’ court led to a Joint Motion for Continuance of Berthelot’s Trial by Jury until May 15.  The joint motion was made because “legal issues in State v. Matassa are possibly dispositive of” the case against Berthelot.

His attorney, along with Assistant Attorney General Jeff Traylor, both signed the continuance motion.

Dispositive, in the legal sense, means a fact or point of law which brings about the settlement of a contested issue, i.e. the guilt (or not) of the defendant.  The legal issues cited by Traylor and defense counsel Steven Moore are being considered, not by Verdigets in the Berthelot case, but by Judge Tommy Kliebert in State v. Matassa.

Kliebert allowed Matassa to “re-urge” a Motion to Quash the indictment, alleging the operative statute to be unconstitutional based upon the argument that Wayne Lawson, the target of the alleged bribe, was not a candidate for office for the purposes of Louisiana Revised Statute 18:1461.5: “A.  No person shall knowingly, willfully, or intentionally:

(4)(a)  Give or offer to give, directly or indirectly, any money or any thing of apparent present or prospective value to a candidate for public office for the purpose of securing the candidate’s withdrawal from an election.”

Lawson received 1587 votes but “was never a candidate” asserts Matassa

Judge Verdigets denied Matassa’s original Motion to Quash on October 18, 2017.  Berthelot made the same motion, also denied.  According to court minutes:

At the conclusion of arguments, the Court advised that this is a matter to be determined at trial and not in a pre-trial motion such as this and finds it to be constitutional.  The Court at this time denied the Motion to Quash.  Defense counsel LEWIS UNGLESBY made an objection to not being given the opportunity to have a hearing on the Motion to Quash; Court noted the objection for the record.  Defense counsels STEVE MOORE and LEWIS UNGLESBY advised that they will be seeking writs on the Court’s ruling.  Court advised counsels to file a written motion seeking said writs and a return date will be set at that time.

No writs were ever taken, not by Moore and not by Unglesby.  But Verdigets, inexplicably, recused his court from presiding over State v. Matassa on December 14; two weeks after setting the trial date for February 21 and ordering 200 jury subpoenas to issue.  Matassa’s case was re-allotted from Division A to Kliebert’s Division B where Matassa is being afforded a second opportunity to argue his Motion to Quash on March 27.

Should Kliebert find that Lawson was not a candidate for the purposes of the criminal statute the indictment of Matassa would be quashed; while Berthelot’s charges in Verdigets’ court would remain.  It is that potential inconsistency which led to the Joint Motion to continue Berthelot’s trial.  AAG Traylor and Steve Moore wrote:

“There are outstanding legal issues that have yet to be adjudicated that will have a direct impact upon the case at hand.  Trying this matter prior to those issues being ruled upon raise the significant risk of contradictory rulings on the same issues of law and judicial economy warrants said continuance…The ends of justice of granting this continuance outweigh the best of the public and the defendant in this matter.  A failure to grant said continuance may result in a miscarriage of justice.”

Why neither defendant pursued appellate relief to resolve” the outstanding legal issues” after Verdigets’ rejection of their argument five months ago is a question of strategy, or delay, or something else.  The outstanding legal issues would never have arisen had Verdigets not, of his own volition, recused in the Matassa matter.

Verdigets ruling is not binding precedent on Kliebert, any more than Kliebert’s ruling (if he should grant Matassa’s Motion to Quash) would be on Verdigets.  Should Matassa’s indictment be dismissed in Division B one would expect AAG Traylor to seek those writs that Moore and Unglesby did not.  Who really knows at this point?

NOTE:  Olin Berthelot is seeking Verdigets recusal too.  We’ll tell that tale later this week.