Murphy Painter withdraws from Ascension president race; Cointment wins election

4 weeks ago The Advocate 0

GONZALES — Murphy Painter, the former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control commissioner, has withdrawn from the Nov. 16 runoff for Ascension Parish president as the parish’s top prosecutor says he plans to call him before the grand jury over comments in a purported recording of him from two years ago.

Clint Cointment, Painter’s prospective opponent in the runoff who narrowly lost to the outgoing president in a 2015 runoff election, is now the parish president-elect.

He will take office in January, replacing Parish President Kenny Matassa, who did not seek reelection following his acquittal on an attempted election bribery count last year.

Ascension Parish District Attorney Ricky Babin said in an interview Friday that he will be bringing Painter before the grand jury to have him discuss his knowledge of five alleged cases of child rape that a local website publisher says Painter mentioned in a two-year-old interview.

The Pelican Post, a local news and opinion site, published on Friday a short story and an excerpted recording purportedly of Painter. Painter disputes that he is on the recording or that it accurately reflects anything he might have said. 

Babin said he believes he knows what case may be being referenced in the recording but isn’t 100% sure. He declined to share his thoughts, despite rampant speculation on social media. If there are previously undisclosed victims out there, Babin said, he wants Painter’s help to find out who they are and bring their alleged rapist to justice.

Babin said the grand jury won’t be focusing on any possible official malfeasance or misprision of a felony allegation for failure to report a crime because the statute of limitations on those kind of charges have long since lapsed.

However, if an undisclosed rape allegation against a child younger than 12 does exist, Babin noted, that instance could still give rise to a charge.

The recording is back in Babin’s lap after Wade Petite, publisher of the Pelican Post, first turned the snippet over to him on June 24, Babin said. Babin said he provided the recording to Louisiana State Police, but state investigators declined to pursue the matter, citing insufficient evidence.

Babin said he’ll also subpoena a full copy of the recording from Petite for the grand jury.

The Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office received notification about Painter’s withdrawal Monday, the deadline to do so, said Tyler Brey, office spokesman.

In a statement issued after Painter withdrew, Cointment promised to represent “all of Ascension Parish” and said he would be assembling his team about how to unite the parish and move forward.

“I would like to thank my opponents for a clean, hard fought race. The most important thing to remember is each one of their supporters is now going to be a constituent of mine and I look forward to serving them and gaining their support,” Cointment said.

In the 49-second recording that has drawn the district attorney’s attention, a voice that is purportedly Painter’s can be heard complaining that he spent years working for now deceased former Sheriff Harold Tridico in hopes of one day “taking over.”

“The next week, whenever we find a friend of ours that raped five girls under the age of 12 years old, and y’all want me to turn my head on that and look the other way,” the voice says, before turning to other allegations.

Painter, in a written statement, denied the allegation “that somehow, somewhere, I was involved in a coverup” while employed with the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office.    

Painter was Tridico’s chief deputy until 1988 when the men had falling out. Painter later ran against the sheriff in 1991 but lost. 

In an interview, Painter refused to characterize what’s being referenced in the recorded comments. But in his written statement, he said the incidents mentioned in the recorded comments happened after he was in the Sheriff’s Office.

Painter did not acknowledge that the voice on the recording is his and claimed it had been altered. He claimed that it fulfilled a year-old political threat from Petite, publisher of the Pelican Post and an outspoken backer of Cointment.

Petite said the recording was of Painter and was made during interviews he granted Petite in 2017. He said he’s not coordinated with Cointment’s campaign but considers him a friend and believes he is the best candidate for the job.

Cointment said he has no control over what the Pelican Post does or writes.

“I can’t control that media outlet anymore than I can control The Advocate, WBRZ (or) WAFB from writing about my opponent’s past,” he said in a written statement. “All of my energy will be put into moving this parish forward.”

Petite helped a former Gonzales City Council candidate secretly record Matassa and one of his political allies, Olin Berthelot, in 2016 and publicize the recordings, leading to their indictment on bribery counts.

Matassa was acquitted last year and Berthelot had his charge dropped. Neither Matassa nor Berthelot disputed they had been recorded but said no attempted bribery occurred.

Cointment’s rise caps a tumultuous election season that has already installed a new majority on the Parish Council come January.

Challengers were able to stoke an anti-incumbency mood and take down five incumbents on the 11-member council on Oct. 12. Another incumbent did not seek reelection at qualifying in August. A sixth challenger, Chase Melancon, won a St. Amant seat without opposition.

First-term Councilman Aaron Lawler, who represents the Prairieville area, led two other candidates in the primary, but faces a runoff challenge from retired FBI agent Kim Christy. Lawler is a Republican; Christy is a Democrat.

In the primary, Cointment led a three-person field with 42% of the vote. Painter, despite being the more well-funded candidate with backing from builders, firms that do business with the parish and many Ascension families, came in second with 22%. Both men are Republicans.