Former Ascension Parish official pleads not guilty in Facebook case

A former top deputy of Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez pleaded not guilty Tuesday to two counts of misdemeanor online impersonation of one of her former co-workers in the parish administration.

Parish sheriff’s investigators allege in reports that Patricia Elizabeth James, Martinez’s former chief executive assistant until late May 2012, created a fake Facebook account under the name of Martinez’s current chief of staff, Kim Braud. “Derogatory and defamatory information” was posted about Braud on the page under Braud’s name, a sheriff’s report says.

James, 53, 17137 La. 930, Prairieville, was cited Oct. 26 with one count of online impersonation, according to a sheriff’s report. Prosecutors later added a second count. If found guilty, James faces up to a $1,000 fine or between 10 days and six months in jail, or both per count.

James was cited under a new state law that makes it a crime to impersonate people with the intent to harm them by email, social media, website, instant message or other electronic communication.

Similar laws in other states have drawn free speech objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, especially when provisions criminalize harmful speech that could be viewed as parody or satire.

The Louisiana Legislature adopted the law, Act 375, last year under a bill filed by Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans. The law took effect Aug. 1.

James is accused of creating the fake site Aug. 6. The fake page was taken down Aug. 9, the sheriff’s report says.

Through a series of warrants to telecommunications providers and a search of James’ house, sheriff’s investigators claim in a report that they were able to tie James to an email account that created the Facebook page and to a laptop that accessed the page and posted to it.

James’ attorney, Tim Pujol, entered the not guilty plea on her behalf Tuesday before Parish Court Judge Marilyn Lambert at the Ascension Parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales. James was not present.

Pujol also waived the formal reading of James’ charges after he and Assistant Attorney General Stephen Martin, who is prosecuting the case, had a brief off-the-record bench conference with Lambert.

Lambert set a motion date for the case at 1 p.m. Sept. 10.

Pujol and Martin declined comment about the case after the hearing Monday.

A fuller sheriff’s report filed in the court record reveals allegations from current and former parish workers and officials that James had a history of conflict with Braud, whom Braud said she outranked.

Using a nickname for Braud, the Facebook site went by the name “Kimmie Braud” and included a picture of deceased comedienne Phyllis Diller as Braud’s primary self-portrait, or online avatar.

The report detailed some examples of posts that portrayed Braud as fretting over her clothes, preferring to be scantily clad for work, listing one of her employers as Kmart and lacking the experience needed for her job in the administration.

“‘Trying to figure out what to wear to work tomorrow! The shorter the better,’” the sheriff’s report quotes one post as saying.

The report details how Braud told investigators that one of the most harmful items to her reputation was in the Info/About section of the bogus page: “I have the greatest job in the world! I have no experience and no education! And I get to make other employees miserable everyday. Guess how I got my job. ;)”

Braud told investigators she believed the statement was a reference to her job as chief of staff and insinuated that she had sexual relations with Martinez, the report says.

Braud flatly disputed any implication Tuesday that she and Martinez had any sort of intimate contact.

“I wholeheartedly deny it,” Braud said in an at-times emotional interview. “That’s so untrue. That’s so untrue.”

Braud, who was present for the arraignment Tuesday, said that airing those allegations amounts to victimizing the victim again.

“I am the victim, and I have to defend myself,” Braud said.

James declined comment Tuesday.

Martinez did not return a message for comment Tuesday evening.