Five years ago Ascension’s Murphy Painter resigned his post at the head of Louisiana’s Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control after a decade and a half and he walked away under a cloud. Amid sordid allegations that he had “sexually harassed” and “stalked” the woman who had served as his Administrative Assistant, Painter would eventually face 42 criminal counts in federal court. 13 of the counts, for computer fraud and identity theft, were dismissed before the jury found him “Not Guilty” on 29, and Painter has spent much of the last year trying to vindicate himself and his name in civil court.
Painter filed a defamation suit against the State of Louisiana and its Inspector General, Stephen Street.
On Wednesday the plaintiff filed pleadings alleging “no genuine issue of material fact” exists and Painter is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, casting the state and its Inspector General liable for defamation, asserting that Street personally made defamatory statements in addition to official publication in court documents and an affidavit for search warrant.”
Accusing another of a crime is “defamatory per se” according to Painter’s memorandum in support of the motion for Summary Judgment but the defendants “publishing the words evidenced a gross disregard for the truth and actual malice against Mr. Painter.” The result was “grave injury to Mr. Painter’s personal and professional reputation,” in large part because he was “wrongly accused of sexual harassment and stalking.”
Painter was never charged with either but the allegations were employed during the investigation into the alleged acts which led to the former ABC director’s being prosecuted. The pleadings assert that defamatory statements were published in the Office of Inspector General’s application for search warrants, on the OIG’s website and corresponding publications, in oral statements made to press, and in several press releases.
The plaintiff’s memorandum goes on to claim that an independent investigator “was told by (the purported stalking victim) that no sexual harassment occurred” and the investigator concluded that “Mr. Painter did not violate the Department’s Anti-Harassment Policy.” Painter himself claims that he was never made aware of any sexual harassment and/or stalking allegations until after the independent investigation had concluded.
Pelican Post contacted Murphy Painter for comment on the Motion for Summary Judgment. Painter asserted that the memorandum accurately depicts his version of events and offered to make himself available in the near future should any further comment be sought.
The OIG executed a search warrant after submitting an affidavit containing many of the statements Painter claims defamed him. He contends that the affidavit and search warrant were unnecessary because the warrant pertained to Painter’s work computer which was property of the State of Louisiana which the OIG could have seized at any time, thus, the warrant and corresponding affidavit were gratuitous and maliciously intended to defame Painter.
Eventually Painter would be charged with 42 counts comprised of computer fraud, false statements, and aggravated identity theft. Louisiana’s legislature reimbursed nearly $300,000 in attorney fees in July of 2014 amid speculation that Murphy Painter was a victim of Governor Bobby Jindal’s disfavor.
To prevail on his defamation claim Painter must prove (1) that false and defamatory statements were made, (2) in an unprivileged communication to a third party, (3) the defendant(s) are at fault due to negligence or intentional act, and (4) Painter suffered injury.
If the statements are defamatory per se, as Painter contends an accusations of criminality are, then falsity, malice, and injury are presumed. If correct, the burden of proof would shift to the defendants to disprove one or more elements of the claim; or prove an affirmative defense like immunity.
Inspector General Street chose to issue press releases, including those on the OIG website, and made public statements that were “sensational, derogatory, and clearly defamatory” to him contends Murphy Painter. Many can be found on the OIG’s website to this day.
One OIG website headline read that Painter “illegally monitored wife of Sen. David Vitter and others.” The report accused him of making 1,150 inquiries to “get private information about citizens,” the majority of which “focused on women” in the New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Gonzales areas.
There is a OIG “Editorial: Snooping on the Job” of which Painter complains.
Painter “repeatedly used the law enforcement power of his office to invade the privacy of innocent citizens who had committed no crime and were not under investigation,” according to a joint statement by Stephen Street and the US Attorney. Painter went “to the homes of these people and conducted surveillance of them and their neighbors.”
A NOLA.com article on May 29, 2012 quoting Street elicited the comment by a reader:
“What a (expletive) freak!”
Painter’s memorandum includes several reader comments from the NOLA.com piece and from the OIG’s site. They include:
“What a creep;” “This useless skum bag, Murphy Painter, belongs in prison;” “…tendencies of a stalker and quite possibly that of a sociopath. Charge and prosecute;” “…lightweight J. Edgar Hoover…this piece of crap should be given time in the big house.”
Hearing on Painter’s motion for summary judgment has not been scheduled as yet. The matter will be held in Baton Rouge’s 19th Judicial District Court.