Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto refused Friday to release the names of three deputies under internal investigation for obtaining a coffeehouse surveillance video that showed John Fortunato, Lopinto’s chief opponent in the March 24 primary, meeting with two former chief deputies of the Sheriff’s Office.
Lopinto said earlier this week that he could not recall the names of the deputies, whom he insisted acted of their own volition — and apparently on their lunch break — in a misguided effort to help his campaign. But on Friday, Lopinto, who previously served as the attorney for the Sheriff’s Office, declined to identify the deputies involved or answer further questions about the inquiry.
The sheriff has promised to release the internal affairs report on the incident upon its completion, but he did not say when the investigation might be completed.
Lopinto’s position drew swift criticism from Fortunato, who has accused the interim sheriff of abusing his power and improperly using Sheriff’s Office resources for political gain.
“What I find curious is that he initiated an internal investigation as interim sheriff and doesn’t recall who the deputies were,” Fortunato said. “This is an investigation that shouldn’t take long to yield results.”
Fortunato also encouraged Lopinto to call in an outside law enforcement agency, such as the FBI, to determine who knew what — and when — about the deputies’ decision to go to the P.J.’s coffee shop in Elmwood to retrieve the video.
Lopinto has said that one of the deputies involved is a friend of the owner of the coffee shop, and that the deputy called upon two colleagues to help him download the video.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a local watchdog organization, said he doubts the Sheriff’s Office would refer such a case to an outside agency. But he added that the matter could take on more urgency if the internal investigation ultimately contradicts Lopinto’s public statements about his own knowledge of the deputies’ actions.
“In the past, when you’ve seen agencies request someone else come in, it’s usually for something more egregious than this,” Goyeneche said. “This is, in my opinion, a low-level administrative investigation. It’s stupidity and overkill on the part of some deputies.”
News of the inquiry underscores the increasingly bitter nature of the campaign between Lopinto and Fortunato, a longtime Sheriff’s Office spokesman who retired last year to run against Lopinto. The candidates have taken repeated swipes at each other in recent weeks, speaking derisively about each other’s credentials in public appearances and interviews.
The footage in question apparently shows Fortunato meeting with former JPSO chief deputies Walter “Tom” Gorman and John Thevenot, though it’s unclear if the recording captured any audio. Fortunato said the discussion centered around things such as football and family, but Gorman said he recalled the conversation also turning political at times.
The meeting took place in October, but the exact date is unclear. It’s also not clear how much time passed between the meeting and when the deputies visited the business to retrieve the surveillance footage.
For his part, Lopinto has said he “couldn’t care less” what the retired lawmen were discussing, adding that he has not seen the video and doesn’t need it for his campaign. He also said he expects employees “to know better” than to try to help his campaign in such a manner.
The episode has drawn parallels to another coffee shop controversy shortly before Louisiana’s 2015 gubernatorial election, in which a private investigator hired by then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter was caught spying on then-Jefferson Sheriff Newell Normand and several of his political associates inside Old Metairie’s Royal Blend coffeehouse.
The investigator was arrested, though never charged by prosecutors, after a confrontation with Normand and a foot chase through the surrounding neighborhood. The incident, which drew national attention, became known as “Spygate.”
The most recent case hasn’t triggered any arrests, with Lopinto saying he does not believe the deputies facing administrative scrutiny acted under the color of law to recover the video.
By virtue of being Normand’s chief deputy, Lopinto became sheriff when Normand retired in the summer. Aside from Fortunato, Anthony Bloise was the only other candidate who signed up to run to become Normand’s elected successor.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.