Judge sides with sheriff over lawsuit involving oil pipeline documents

Public records suit
Updated: Jan. 3, 2018 at 10:11 PM CST
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ST. CHARLES PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Wednesday, a St. Charles Parish judge ruled in favor of Sheriff Greg Champagne over a lawsuit filed alleging the sheriff did not completely fulfill a public records request.

After hearing testimony from Champagne and two other deputies, Judge Emile St. Pierre decided the sheriff adequately answered a request filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights in September 2017.

The center, in conjunction with Loyola Law, sued the sheriff's office because the organizations believed Champagne did not turn over all public documents involved with trips made to Sandy Rocks, North Dakota, while protesters marched against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, and documents involving possible correspondence with Phillip 66.

"We got minimal responses at the beginning so we sent a followup letter saying tell us the rest of the story here. It's clear there are other records out there; emails, videos and the like and we never got a response to that," Loyola Law Professor Bill Quigley said. "We had no choice but either to just accept the sheriff's decision that was all they were going to give us or file suit...We're not accusing the sheriff of any criminal conduct or any unethical conduct, but we do believe the sheriff has an obligation to show these records to the public."

The Center for Constitutional Rights believes the sheriff is withholding public information, despite the sheriff saying he satisfied the public records request.

"I've been so up front. That's probably why I've gotten all these public records request because they don't like what I had to say when I went there and told the truth about what I saw.  I think that's drawing some fire for me," Champagne said.

Sheriff Champagne posted on Facebook alleging a few violent protesters at Standing Rock caused damage to property and meant to harm law enforcement officers.

He said he made two trips to North Dakota in 2016 but only in the capacity as the president of the National Sheriff's Association. Champagne served as NSA president from June 2016 to June 2017. Six St. Charles deputies also traveled to North Dakota.

Champagne said no St. Charles taxpayer dollars were spent on the trips. He said the NSA paid for his travel and the state of North Dakota paid for his deputies travel, pier Diem and meals.

"This went though EMAC (Emergency Management Assistance Compact) process for any natural disaster or incident where law enforcement is needed," Champagne said. "Morton County has 40 deputies. That's a country county up there, and they were ill-equipped for thousands of protesters coming."

The Center for Constitutional Rights wanted Sheriff Champagne to turn over emails and correspondence he made during his trip as NSA president. The organization believes the only reason Champagne served as NSA president is because his is the St. Charles Parish Sheriff and the two should go hand and hand.

The judge ruled Champagne was not required to turn over those records.

"We disagree and that's why we're taking it to the Court of Appeal," Quigley said.

While that legal process continues, Champagne believes he has been targeted by environmentalist groups.

He warns the Bayou Bridge Pipeline set for construction through the Atchafalaya Basin will attract protesters to Louisiana.

"95 percent of the people are going to be peaceful. They are going to protest. They are going to go to the meetings, but you're going to have an element of people who are going to come, essentially, anarchists and they are going to want to hurt people and commit violence and destroy property. That's coming. I will be shocked if that doesn't happen here," Champagne said.

Champagne said he only met one person who represented Energy Transfer Partners at a NSA meeting, but the sheriff said he did not discuss business with that person. 
"Law enforcement in Louisiana, we are not for or against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. We are for the rule of law," Champagne said. "I think some of this is to temper the response of law enforcement to the Bayou Bridge Pipeline."

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