Misdemeanor counts dismissed against former Ascension official

Prosecutors with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office have dismissed two counts of misdemeanor online impersonation against a former top Ascension Parish government official.

Patricia Elizabeth “Beth” James, 55, of Prairieville, was accused of creating a bogus Facebook account in August 2012 under the nickname of her co-worker, Kim Braud, then Parish President Tommy Martinez’s chief of staff, and posting statements in Braud’s name that reflected poorly on Braud.

James, who was one of Martinez’s top lieutenants as his chief executive assistant until May 2012, had been set for trial Tuesday in the 23rd Judicial District Court, but prosecutors said they dismissed the charges on Jan. 16 after James went through pre-trial diversion.

The move brings a quiet end to the Attorney General’s first attempt to bring a prosecution under the online impersonation law — it took effect Aug., 1, 2012 — and avoids a potential clash over its validity in light of free speech protections.

James’ attorney Tim Pujol argued in a hearing in September that the charges should be quashed because the law infringes on the First Amendment right to mock public figures with satire. Though Pujol never acknowledged James created the “Kimmie Braud” Facebook page or posted to it, Pujol claimed the page was satire. James pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Martin countered in September that James was accused of a form of identity theft and that Pujol’s arguments were a smokescreen because James could have freely made the same comments about Braud under James’ own name.

Derogatory statements and images on Kimmie Braud’s looks, clothing, ethics and job experience were posted to the page in early August 2012 by the online Kimmie Braud. The site was taken down after three days, a sheriff’s report says. The real Kim Braud later filed a criminal complaint.

Judge Marilyn Lambert of Ascension Parish Court deferred ruling on the motion to quash until trial.

Kurt Wall, director of the Attorney General’s Criminal Division, said James was considered for pre-trial diversion for three reasons: the charges are misdemeanors, James has no criminal history and the extent of prosecutors’ possible expenses to bring in out-of-state trial witnesses.

Filings in the case show prosecutors subpoenaed the custodians of records for Google and Facebook as witnesses. Both are in California.

Under the diversion program, James was required to send the victim a letter and to pay $100 each to the AG’s office and parish Sheriff’s Office for part of the cost of the investigation, Wall said.

The sheriff’s investigative report provides a lengthy criminal rap sheet for a “Patricia A. James,” but Wall said prosecutors verified the past of the Beth James accused in the impersonation case.

“We are 100 percent convinced this defendant had no previous criminal history,” Wall said.

The person listed in the rap sheet has a different birth date than Beth James — off by one day — and a different middle initial.

Braud, who is now Martinez’s chief executive assistant, did not return a message for comment Monday. Pujol has not returned messages for comment since Thursday.