First Circuit reverses Judge Kliebert’s ruling on meaning of “candidate”

Matassa and his attorney (file photo)

On April 19 Judge Tommy Kliebert denied two motions in State of Louisiana versus Kenneth P. Matassa; a Motion to Quash the indictment filed by the defendant and a Motion in Limine by the State seeking exclusion of testimony related to the domicile of alleged bribery target, Wayne Lawson.  The denials were not unexpected but Kliebert’s superfluous misinterpretation of “candidate” in the operative criminal statute provided Matassa a temporary glimmer of hope.  Louisiana’s First Circuit Court of Appeal corrected Judge Kliebert in a one paragraph decision on Monday.

GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART. The trial court’ s ruling denying the State of Louisiana’ s motion in limine is reversed in part. The trial court erred as a matter of law when  it found, “a candidate for Gonzales City Council is one who meets the qualifications for the Gonzales City Council at the time he submits his notice of candidacy.” It is a recognized rule of statutory construction that the court must give the words of a law their generally prevailing meaning ( except that words which are words of art or technical terms must be given their technical meaning). And ” when the words of a law are ambiguous, their meaning must be sought by examining the context in which they occur and the text of the law as a whole.”. Furthermore, the writ application is denied in part to uphold the portion of the trial court’s ruling that allows the defendant to present evidence of the alleged candidate’ s qualifications.  This matter is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this ruling. (Citations omitted).

The defense had asserted that, even though he appeared on the November 8, 2016 ballot, Wayne Lawson was not a “candidate” as envisioned by the statute pursuant to which Matassa and co-defendant Olin Berthelot were indicted on March 10, 2017.  Louisiana R.S. 18: §1461.5.  Election offenses involving bribery which reads:

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.”

According to Judge Kliebert the elements of the crime, all of which must be proven by the prosecution, are:

  • gave or offered to give, directly or indirectly;
  • 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.

Matassa in his own words (and Berthelot’s): A Refresher

In his April 19 Reasons for Judgement Kliebert wrote:

The critical inquiry of both motions is to determine what constitutes candidacy for purposes of element three of the charged statute.  This Court notes that La. R. S. 18:1461.5 does not define the term candidate.   Accordingly, the Court must determine what is meant by the term candidate in that statute.  The Louisiana Election Code establishes that only persons meeting qualifications for the office he seeks at the time he qualifies for that office may become a candidate.  The office sought herein is Gonzales City Councilman.  La. R. S. 33:384-385 provides that when qualifying for this position, a candidate must be an elector and have been a resident and domiciliary of the municipality for at least a year immediately preceding qualification.  The candidate must also be a resident of the ward he seeks to represent although this residency does not have to be for any specified time.  Therefore, the Court finds that a candidate for Gonzales City Council is one who meets the qualifications for the Gonzales City Council at the time he submits his notice for candidacy.

The First Circuit disagreed with his conclusion.  That court confronted similar issues in State v. Banta wherein it relied on Louisiana’s Election Code; Revised Statute 18:1405(A):

An action objecting to candidacy shall be instituted not later than 4:30 p.m. of the seventh day after the close of qualifications for candidates in the primary election.  After the expiration of the time period set forth in this Section, no further action shall be commenced objecting to candidacy based on the grounds for objections to candidacy contained in R.S. 18:492.

Relying on Kliebert’s faulty analysis and erroneous conclusions, Matassa waived his right to be tried by a jury of his peers.  The bench trial is set to begin at 1:00 p.m. today in Gonzales where his co-defendant is scheduled to testify for the prosecution.