Murphy Painter trial's first issue: What is improper?

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.

Use of databases questioned

Murphy J. Painter used his position as the state’s former top alcohol and tobacco regulator to obtain personal information about people not related to criminal investigations, prosecutors told jurors Wednesday during the opening day of Painter’s criminal trial.

“This is a case about abuse of authority,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Cam Le said.

Le said Painter used confidential federal and state law enforcement databases to obtain information on a girlfriend from three decades in his past as well as the wife of a U.S. senator.

Defense attorney Michael Fawer told jurors Painter’s more than 2,000 inquiries were legitimate.

Fawer added prosecutors ignored “the 800-pound gorilla sitting in this courtroom.”

The defense attorney said his reference was to the practice by law enforcement officers of running criminal background checks for parents concerned about men who are dating their daughters.

“So, why are we here?” Fawer said. “We are here because Murphy Painter, as the commissioner (for the state’s Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control) for 14 years, when it came to Gov. Jindal wanting certain permits issued, he was unwilling.”

The government’s first witness was Kimberly K. Smith, the FBI’s program manager for the National Crime Information Center in West Virginia.

Le asked Smith whether Fawer’s 800-pound gorilla would be an acceptable use of the NCIC database.

“No, because it would not be associated with his (the officer’s) official duties,” Smith said.

Al Robert, Fawer’s co-counsel, later asked Smith whether an officer could properly access NCIC’s criminal history information if the parents reported that the man dating their daughter possessed automatic weapons.

Smith said that would be an acceptable use of the law enforcement database.

Painter is charged with computer fraud and lying to government investigators, as well as aggravated identity theft.

Le asked Smith whether it would be acceptable for an officer to use NCIC for the background check on a boyfriend with automatic weapons if the search results simply were forwarded to the parents rather than used in a criminal investigation.

“No,” said Smith. “That’s a personal favor, and it’s not consistent with his duties as a law enforcement officer.”

Le also questioned Cheryl Coatney, a married Realtor in Spring, Texas, whose three children range in age from 26 to 18, about an email she received from Painter on Dec. 5, 2007.

Coatney said the email was unexpected because she knew Painter socially when they both worked in Gonzales more than 30 years ago.

Coatney had not seen or heard from Painter for more than two decades, she testified.

Until government investigators informed her records of computer searches in Painter’s office indicated he had obtained directions to her home in Texas on Dec. 25, 2007, Coatney said she was unaware that he may have considered traveling to her Texas residence.

“Were you expecting a visit from the defendant?” asked Le.

“No,” Coatney said.

Fawer, referring to Painter’s email to Coatney, asked: “Happy to hear from him?”

“Yes,” said Coatney. “Somewhat indifferent.”

Former LSU and New England Patriots quarterback Tommy Hodson was asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Shubhra Shivpuri whether he had ever had any business with ATC that would have warranted a law enforcement database search of his background found on Painter’s computer.

“No, not to my knowledge,” Hodson said.

Hodson said he once met Painter at a charity golf tournament either in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but he had no idea why Painter would search confidential government databases for information about him.

Fawer wanted to know whether Hodson has friends in the restaurant and bar business who might have attracted Painter’s attention.

Hodson said he has three good friends with restaurants.

Shane Evans, a former investigator for the Louisiana Office of Inspector General, testified he received a complaint from Painter’s former administrative assistant, Kelli Suire, four days before Painter’s ATC career ended in August 2010.

Evans told Assistant U.S. Attorney M. Patricia Jones that Suire alleged Painter had used NCIC and state law enforcement databases for personal reasons unrelated to ATC investigations.

After Painter was removed from office, Evans said he seized the commissioner’s desktop computer to secure and preserve its contents.

A subsequent search of the office revealed a printout with directions to the residence of Suire’s attorney, Jill Craft, Evans told Jones. He added that Painter’s computer also contained law enforcement database information on one of Craft’s next-door neighbors.

Another database search was conducted on Wendy Vitter, wife of U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., Evans testified.

Jones played a video of a WAFB-TV interview Painter gave after the Office of Inspector General reported that the former ATC commissioner checked law enforcement databases for information on former station reporter Keitha Nelson.

In that video, Painter said he probably ran a driver’s license check on Nelson because he is interested in basketball and wanted to know Nelson’s height.

Fawer wanted to know why Evans was so interested in 2,000 database inquiries alleged to have been performed by Painter over a five-year period, when Evans conducted that many searches over a period of less than three years.

Fawer suggested the Office of Inspector General had no evidence of wrongdoing by Painter before he was fired.

Evans told Fawer that was Fawer’s testimony, not his.

Testimony is scheduled to resume Thursday in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge James J. Brady.