Judge refuses to dismiss case against Murphy Painter

Advocate file photo by BILL FEIG -- Former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Murphy Painter leaves Baton Rouge state court in this February 2011 photo. Show caption
Advocate file photo by BILL FEIG -- Former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Murphy Painter leaves Baton Rouge state court in this February 2011 photo.

Defense motion in fraud trial denied

Testimony in the criminal trial of Murphy J. Painter, former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control commissioner, resumed Wednesday after a federal judge dismissed a defense motion to throw out the indictment.

Painter is fighting 32 counts of computer fraud, false statements and aggravated identity theft. He is alleged to have used confidential federal and state law enforcement databases to gather information about people unrelated to any criminal investigations.

Defense attorneys Michael S. Fawer and Al J. Robert Jr. called witnesses who supported Painter’s pretrial allegation that several members of his ATC staff had access to his office and computer passwords.

In a pretrial hearing, both an FBI computer expert and an expert for Painter testified they could find no evidence that any information was deleted or altered from Painter’s computer after it was seized by state investigators three years ago.

At the trial, some defense witnesses testified several ATC employees had Painter’s passwords and would have been able to access his computer before it was seized.

On Wednesday, Robert focused hard on Painter’s contention that he was fired by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s staff in August 2010 because he refused to grant a liquor license for Champions Square adjacent to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

Robert and Fawer have stated the license would have granted Budweiser a monopoly on beer sales at the square.

Brant Thompson, Painter’s deputy commissioner and the man who succeeded Painter as interim commissioner, denied earlier in the trial that he ever granted a permit for Champions Square and said he does not know whether a permit was issued after he left office months later.

On Wednesday, Robert read into the court record a defense-and-prosecution agreement that says Champions Square did receive a permit for alcohol sales.

Larry Hingle, a 23-year ATC employee, then testified that Thompson’s signature was on a series of three-day permits for alcohol sales at Champions Square on the weekends of New Orleans Saints home football games in the 2010 season.

Assistant U.S. Attorney M. Patricia Jones then asked Hingle whether Thompson’s signature was stamped or personally written on those permits.

Hingle said the signature was Thompson’s but agreed it was stamped onto the permits. Hingle said he did not witness the stamping of that signature onto the papers.

Christian T. Avery, an attorney who served as outside counsel to ATC from 2006 until 2012, testified that he was never aware of interest by the Governor’s Office in specific alcohol licenses prior to Champions Square.

Two days after Painter refused to grant that license, Avery said, Painter was terminated by the Governor’s Office.

Michael R. Roop, of Richmond, Texas, is a retired Louisiana State Police captain who now works as an independent consultant on safety and security issues.

A longtime friend of Painter’s, Roop told Fawer that information “is the lifeblood of the law enforcement officer.” Officers call for database information on license plates any time they encounter someone who they feel might be a threat to do something unlawful, Roop said.

Jones wanted to know the purpose of those databases.

“Criminal justice purposes,” Roop told the prosecutor.

Jones noted that Painter had database information on former WAFB-TV reporter Keitha Nelson and publicly stated he obtained it because he was a basketball fan and wanted to know Nelson’s height.

Nelson, who now resides in Florida, testified earlier that she ran track in high school and college but never played basketball.

Nelson added she did not know why Painter had her information.

Jones asked Roop whether searching a law enforcement database for the height of a television reporter serves a law enforcement purpose.

“That’s not a criminal justice purpose, no,” Roop said.

“I don’t know what was in Mr. Painter’s mind when he did that,” Roop told Jones. “You don’t know.”

Testimony in the case ended Wednesday. Painter opted not to take the witness stand. Final arguments are scheduled for Thursday morning.