Painter trial attorneys clash over use of databases

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.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the trial of Murphy J. Painter, former state commissioner for Alcohol and Tobacco Control, clashed Tuesday over Painter’s alleged use of law enforcement databases to find information on people not targeted in criminal investigations.

Painter, 60, of Gonzales, is fighting in Baton Rouge federal court against 32 charges of computer fraud, false statements and aggravated identity theft.

Trevor McDonald, the ATC employee who tracked office use of a federal database for more than two years before Painter’s ouster in August 2010, told Assistant U.S. Attorney M. Patricia Jones that state policy prohibited use of the system for purposes not related to criminal investigations.

“Any use of the system had to be for criminal (checks),” McDonald testified.

But Michael S. Fawer, an attorney for Painter, showed McDonald a portion of a state law that Fawer said requires the ATC to make criminal history checks on all applicants for liquor licenses in Louisiana.

Fawer asked McDonald to explain that contradiction.

“I can’t,” said McDonald, who now works for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety.

When Fawer repeated his question, McDonald said: “We were told at ATC, through the policy, that we could only use the system for criminal justice purposes.”

Before the jury returned to the courtroom from their lunch break, the dispute escalated.

Fawer and co-counsel Al J. Robert Jr. argued that prosecutors had not proved their case. They asked U.S. District Judge James J. Brady to dismiss the indictment.

“Where’s the theft of identity?” Brady asked Jones.

“It (identity) does not have to be stolen,” Jones replied.

She said federal criminal law simply requires that another person’s identity be used, possessed or transferred without lawful authority.

“She’s off the wall,” Fawer shouted. “The trial of this case is a sham. This case is nonsensical.”

Jones argued that Fawer mistakenly said Painter could not have accessed a law enforcement database for driver’s license information without automatically triggering a criminal history report from the FBI’s National Crime Information Center in West Virginia.

Painter obtained such information by improperly entering the letter “C” in a drop-down box for the purpose of his database searches, Jones said. She said that action falsely told the FBI Painter’s queries were part of a criminal investigation.

Brady did not immediately rule on the defense motion for dismissal.

Defense testimony in the case is scheduled to resume Wednesday.