State investigator no longer defendant in former ATC chief’s long-running defamation suit

2 weeks ago The Advocate 0

Former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control chief Murphy Painter’s long-running defamation lawsuit against the Louisiana Office of Inspector General and others is minus one defendant following action taken this week by the nation’s highest court.

Now, an attorney for OIG and Inspector General Stephen Street says he’ll renew his push to have the office and Street dismissed from the case as well.

Painter’s attorney, however, said he’s still preparing to take those defendants to trial.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, without issuing written reasons, allowed a state appellate court’s dismissal of OIG investigator Shane Evans from Painter’s 2011 suit to stand.

Painter, who is currently a candidate for Ascension Parish president, alleged in his suit that a scathing February 2011 OIG report — and an August 2010 search warrant application filed in Baton Rouge state court by Evans — defamed him.

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Painter was accused of stalking and sexually harassing Kelli Suire, who was his administrative assistant when he was ATC commissioner. He denies those accusations.

“Because Mr. Painter based his claims against Louisiana Inspector General Stephen Street and the OIG on the alleged conduct of Mr. Evans, we fully expect those claims to also be thrown out now that Mr. Evans has been dismissed,” lawyer Preston Castille, who represents the defendants, said Tuesday.

Al Robert Jr., one of the lawyers representing Painter, noted that the Supreme Court grants and hears argument in only about 1% of the cases that are filed each court term. The vast majority of cases are simply denied without comment or explanation, he added.

“The Court’s decision does not indicate the Court’s view of the merits of Mr. Painter’s claims and it has impact on his defamation claims against the Office of Inspector General and Stephen Street,” Robert said.

State District Judge Janice Clark is presiding over Painter’s suit.

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Painter also contends that Street and his office smeared his name by alleging he illegally accessed confidential law enforcement databases to find personal information on people — mostly females, including Suire and the wife of then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter — who were not connected to any criminal probes.

A federal jury in Baton Rouge acquitted Painter in 2013 of accusations of computer fraud and making false statements to the FBI stemming from a probe into allegations he was improperly accessing a law enforcement database.

Another federal jury found in 2014 that Suire defamed Painter in her 2010 state court lawsuit alleging he had stalked and sexually harassed her. That jury, however, said Painter failed to prove Suire defamed him in the OIG’s 2010 search warrant application. Painter was not awarded any monetary damages.

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Robert has said Evans admitted in federal court that the words “stalked” and “harassed” in the application were his words, not Suire’s. Castille has said “stalking” is a legal term of art and that what Suire described to Evans when talking about Painter’s conduct met the definition of stalking.

Painter’s attorneys claim he was defamed by OIG and Street on the office’s website and in some of Street’s comments to news reporters, and that OIG exceeded its power and statutory authority in filing the search warrant application. OIG should have turned over the investigation into purported criminal activity to the appropriate law enforcement agency, the lawyers say.

Street has said he stands behind everything his office did in the Painter case.

Painter was ATC commissioner for 14 years. He said he was fired in August 2010, just days after Suire complained to Street’s office about him.

Painter was never formally charged with the crimes of sexual harassment or stalking.

Suire moved to Florida after the state settled her claims. She received $100,000.