KENNER, LA (WVUE) - Embattled Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni insisted despite what he calls his poor decision to exchange "off-color" texts with a teenager last year, he will prove himself as an effective leader for the parish. His wife Michelle gave her support to the parish president on Tuesday while speaking publicly for first time since the texting scandal broke.
In an exclusive interview, the parish president told FOX 8 that while his correspondence with the then-17-year-old high school graduate was inappropriate, he had no sexual contact with the young man.
When asked whether an elected official should ever send such explicit messages to a high school graduate, he said, "it was a poor decision on my part. It was a bad mistake. So, absolutely not. And I can't tell you enough times, and I can't tell my family and the people enough times how sorry I am for doing something so bad."
Everyone from the parish council to the sheriff has asked Yenni to resign. When asked how the scandal might impact his political career, Yenni told FOX 8 he's not even thinking about that now. "I'm just thinking about my job," he said. "I'm asking for forgiveness for this, and I'm thinking about the most important thing. And that's trying to make sure I do some good things so my family can make it through this."
Much of the public reaction has been intense and angry with many voters expressing second thoughts about Yenni, who won the president's job in a 2015 runoff election.
"That's why I stood up and admitted I made a mistake," Yenni said. "But that mistake has not changed the way I govern. I'm sure different people have different opinions on me and I respect their opinion. But it hasn't stopped me from doing the job I was elected to do."
Yenni critics have said he cannot continue to function effectively in his current role, but he maintains he can do the job, and is doing so now.
"Just last week I was at a function at a senior center, I introduced the sheriff, he was the speaker, so I introduced him at that function. Prior to the last council meeting in November, we went through almost 200 items on the agenda. My administration, along with myself, meet with all the council members to go over all the issues on the agenda. And we do that prior to every meeting."
Returning to the topic of the texts themselves, we asked the president what was contained in them; he declined to go into details. "Just very, I guess, inappropriate, off-color things."
When pressed further, Yenni said, "I can tell you that I know one media outlet said that I offered him a job. Never, never offered him a job. I would never do anything like that, because that in my opinion is wrong. That didn't happen. The only thing I offered anybody that I talked to or, I guess, texted with, was to volunteer in my campaign at the time."
This isn't the first time texts have raised questions for Yenni.
"I have made mistakes before, I guess you'd say," he responded, "to friends in the past when I was a single man. I wouldn't say anything that was wrong at the time."
In 2010, NOLA.com reported the FBI tried to determine whether Yenni's personal text messages ended up in the hands of his political opponent. FOX 8 obtained copies of some of those alleged messages, which Yenni said are not real.
"This is what was illegally ascertained, from 2010," he said. "Again, that was something that was not done, in no way, shape or form. I know some people have put it out there that it was a governmental phone and all that stuff. Those were illegally extracted from a personal cellphone. Two people resigned their positions after talking to federal authorities, for what they did with those text messages. And they know that."
When asked again whether the 2010 messages in question were fake, Yenni took a long look at the printout before responding, "Yeah, as far as… Yeah, yeah."
Yenni's wife, Michelle, also said her soon-to-be husband took a lie detector test after those 2010 questions were raised.
"Back in 2010, when we were dating and we had some allegations and, to be clear for family and for myself, we did arrange a lie detector test and he passed."
Michelle Yenni is expecting their second child in January. She sat beside her husband for about 10 minutes and answered questions. She said her husband informed her about the latest texting allegations at some point last year, during his run for the parish presidency.
"I don't remember exactly when," she said. "He told me that there were some improper text messages, and told me a little more about it. We're not going to get into details about that. This is a very personal situation. I know he's a public official, but it still is our private life."
Mrs. Yenni said she was upset and disappointed by the news.
She said she had not heard such rumors before that incident.
"After he told me that, the only other person that's ever mentioned this to me was through a letter from his political opponent."
While Mrs. Yenni declined to name the particular opponent who allegedly sent the letter to her and members of her family she said it was "one of his main ones."
"There [were] allegations that there [were] text messages with somebody else," she said. "I really don't remember the details of the letter."
When asked why would an opponent send such a letter to her and her family?
"That's a good question," she responded.
The Yennis pinned much of the negative reaction to the scandal on political motives. They point to Aaron Broussard and David Vitter, both Jefferson Parish politicians involved in controversy. The Yennis claim neither Broussard nor Vitter faced the same political pressure to resign.
"If you look at the three situations, the public reaction and political reactions have been quite different," Mrs. Yenni said.
The Recall Yenni petition drive is being led by attorney Robbie Evans. Mike Yenni said he received a text message from Evans last month. Yenni said Evans texted that if he didn't resign from office, he would release some of the text messages Yenni sent to the 17-year-old.
Yenni said he considered it a veiled threat.
"We live in a very judgmental time," he told us. "I get that. But I think, you know, it was a very threatening statement. But if I was that concerned about it, I probably would have said, well OK, let me resign. But I mean he, for whatever reason, has decided to do this, to do this recall, and that's what he has to do."
Yenni said he delivered the correspondence from Evans to the FBI.
"I find it to be a very threatening message," he said, "just to threaten somebody, to say that, if you don't do this, this."
He wouldn't tell us what the FBI made of the message.
Yenni said he's apologizing for sending improper text messages, but he reaffirms there was no sexual contact, no kissing and no gifts of expensive underwear.
Meanwhile his wife acknowledges that Yenni disappointed many parish residents.
"I mean, I was disappointed as well," she said. "I've forgiven him. I've moved on. I've seen him change and be a better person, as soon as this happened. And hopefully, if the public gives him a chance, they'll see the same thing."
When we asked her how citizens can possibly trust Yenni, she said, "He's already, you know, spoken his apology and verbally given his commitment to the parish. And I think watching his actions and seeing his actions, I trust him and I think everyone else will too.
"Some people have asked if I thought Mike cheated on me," she continued. "And the answer is no, hundred percent, completely believed him when he said there was no physical contact. And this is something we've talked about many times, you know, over the past year and a half. And I'm convinced of that."
As for why a married man would send explicit messages to a 17-year-old in the first place, Mrs. Yenni told us, "I think we both asked ourselves that daily, if not periodically. But you know, there are so many good things about him. If this is the worst thing I have had to deal with, you know, I can move on past this. He's a great father, great husband. He works hard, he doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke… he is a good person."
The Yennis told us they discussed how to react to the scandal, and whether to resign from office. Mrs. Yenni acknowledged that resignation would have made their lives easier.
"But the easiest route isn't always the best route," she said.
She said she wants her husband to fight on.
"He's always done a good job in office. He wants to do a good job and continue to do a good job in office. And I think that you should have that chance."
Mr. Yenni agreed that resigning would be easier than fighting to keep his job.
"That's taking the easy way out, to just walk away from this, move somewhere else, do whatever," he said. "I'm trying to prove that you can rise from a bad decision. And that's what I made, is a bad decision. And in the conversations I've had with my wife, you know, we decided this. This was not a 'my' decision, this was a 'we' decision between us. I have to show that I can still be an effective leader and be a good person for the residents of this parish."
We reached out to attorney Robbie Evans about Yenni's claims of the alleged threat. Evans told us the FBI did interview him regarding an investigation into JP Registrar of Voters Dennis DiMarco. During that interview, they looked at his texts. Evans says the FBI told him they didn't consider them a problem, but told Evans to stop communicating with Yenni.
Evans said he expected to receive a copy of the texts Yenni sent the teen, but says he never received them.