Cameras taken out recently, Tregre says
“It recorded on motion, or it recorded all the time. I didn’t see that to be necessary, so I had my detectives, the chief of detectives, disable the system.” MIKE TREGRE, St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff
St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre acknowledged Thursday his interrogation rooms were rigged with hidden cameras until recently, as a federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by Tregre’s former chief deputy this week alleged.
Tregre, who took office in July 2012, said the equipment was installed by his predecessor, and he was unaware it was there until three months ago.
He downplayed the notion the cameras were used to illegally record discussions between criminal suspects and their attorneys, the most explosive allegation in the lawsuit filed by Tregg Wilson, a lawyer and until recently Tregre’s chief deputy.
“The second set of cameras was set on a continuous loop and recorded the conversations of individuals in the interview rooms, including conversations between persons charged or suspected of a crime and their attorneys,” Wilson’s suit said.
Tregre said Thursday the systems have been removed.
The equipment “recorded 24 hours a day,” he said, a backup in case the room’s main, visible cameras failed.
The system was installed in the department’s four interrogation rooms by Tregre’s predecessor, Wayne Jones, who served four terms as sheriff before losing to Tregre in 2011, the sheriff said.
“I didn’t even know about it myself until somebody pointed it out to me,” said Tregre, who denied wrongdoing.
Jones could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Tregre said he ordered the hidden cameras removed in May shortly after he learned about them.
“It recorded on motion, or it recorded all the time. I didn’t see that to be necessary, so I had my detectives, the chief of detectives, disable the system,” he said.
The lawsuit contends Tregre handled the matter differently.
It said Wilson approached his boss to voice concern around May 20, telling the sheriff “secretly recording conversations between a suspect and his attorney” was illegal and could jeopardize criminal prosecutions. Weeks later, Wilson says, he was fired, which he alleges was retaliation for speaking out about the cameras.
Tregre allegedly told his staff Wilson resigned, according to Wilson’s suit, which disputes the claim. When asked Thursday whether Wilson was fired or resigned, Tregre said he would not publicly discuss a personnel matter.
Wilson’s whistleblower suit seeks a jury trial and actual and compensatory damages, court records show.
Wilson’s attorney, Todd Slack, of New Orleans, said Thursday he believed the interrogation rooms were used “for a variety of purposes.”
“They’re used for the deputies to interview witnesses, interview potential defendants, and they’re also used for attorneys who come in and meet with clients,” Slack said.
Asked whether Wilson knew first-hand the equipment was used to capture attorney-client conversations, Slack said Wilson “started asking other people in the sheriff’s department and it became his opinion that it likely did happen.”
Tregre said that is news to him.
“There are no known complaints, and he just took it upon himself to file a complaint” with District Attorney Tom Daley, the sheriff said.
Daley said he forwarded the complaint to the Louisiana State Police to investigate.
Tregre said State Police informed him two weeks ago he had been cleared of wrongdoing. Daley, likewise, said State Police reported to him they did not have evidence of criminal conduct.
State Police said Thursday that its investigation is complete, but it did not immediately provide a copy of it in response to a public-records request.
Though he had the cameras disconnected, Tregre still saw value in the redundancy they provided.
“You go through a full, detailed confession, and you don’t have a backup system, and for some reason it failed to copy, and the guy changes his mind,” he said, outlining one such scenario. “That’s why you have two systems. All agencies have that.”
It’s unclear why the second set of cameras needed to be hidden.
By the time Wilson approached him about the cameras, Daley said, the equipment had been removed.
“My appreciation is that it was some kind of backup recording device in the interrogation rooms of the detective bureau, not in the rooms that typically would be used for attorney-client conversations,” Daley said Thursday.
Daley said it would be unusual for an attorney to meet with a client in one of the interrogation rooms.
“I can’t say it never happens,” he said, “but it’s not a room set up for that purpose typically.”
Daley said he had “no reasons to second-guess” Wilson’s claims that conversations might have been improperly recorded, though he said he doubted it was ever done on purpose.
“I do share Tregg Wilson’s concern that if somebody is recording conversations without somebody’s permission, they’re not supposed to be doing that, but we happen to live in an age of surveillance monitoring that’s pretty all-intrusive, and so some of these issues are kind of in the gray area,” the district attorney said.
He added: “It would be a serious concern to me ... if this were the attorney-client conference room, then I would be alarmed. But I can’t say that no attorney ever was present in there.”
Now, months later, a demoralized Wilson is working to rebuild his law practice, his attorney said.
“I think my client was really hopeful that from the day he got sworn in, that he could do great things,” Slack said. “He had so much faith in the guy (Tregre) that he shut down his law practice completely to go work for him full-time.”