Man wins defamation case against U.S.

A federal judge awarded a former oil refinery manager $1.6 million from the federal government in a civil suit alleging malicious prosecution in a failed pollution case.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Doherty handed down the 142-page judgment Friday, awarding Hubert P. Vidrine Jr. a total of $1,677,000.

On Monday, the lead investigator in the case against Vidrine pleaded guilty in federal court in Lafayette to one count each of obstructing justice and lying under oath.

Doherty found there was no probable cause to indict Vidrine in 1999 of storing hazardous waste without a permit at the Canal Refining Co. in Church Point.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office dropped the charges against Vidrine in 2003.

Vidrine and his wife filed a civil lawsuit against the U.S. government in federal court in Lafayette in 2007. It alleged the Justice Department and agents with the Environmental Protection Agency opted to continue their efforts to coerce Vidrine into a plea bargain despite having weak evidence and an unreliable witness.

Doherty wrote that Vidrine, among other things, suffered damage to his reputation and his standing in his community, and extreme humiliation.

“Mr. Vidrine was stripped of perhaps his most valuable asset, his good name, and the consequence of that may never be fully ameliorated,” the judge wrote.

Doherty noted Keith Phillips, a former special agent with the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division, made false statements and gave inaccurate testimony in both the criminal case and the civil case that followed.

Phillips, who was indicted in July, admitted Monday he lied under oath about a sexual affair he had with FBI Special Agent Ekko Barnhill while the two agents and their respective agencies investigated the case against Vidrine.

Phillips now faces a possible maximum 10-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine on the obstruction of justice count and a possible maximum 5-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine on the perjury count.

Phillips, Doherty wrote, “either deliberately, or with reckless disregard for the truth, provided false testimony to the grand jury in order to secure an indictment against Hubert Vidrine, on at least two occasions, and permeated the entire investigation with omissions, half-truths, overstatements, inflammatory language, misstatements, patent falsehoods, and tortured readings of regulations.”

The evidence presented also strongly indicated that Phillips deliberately used the investigation and prosecution of Vidrine “to foster, further facilitate and cloak his extramarital affair with Agent Barnhill,” Doherty wrote.

Phillips may have also used that relationship to “exert improper influence over the manner in which (Barnhill) investigated and reported upon this case,” Doherty wrote.

DEAFAMATION ACA

Doherty also questioned Phillips’ reliance upon Mike Franklin as a key witness in the case against Vidrine.

Franklin had an 18-year cocaine habit, a history of psychiatric treatment, several drug arrests, several liens filed against him and he held a grudge against Vidrine, who had become one of his direct competitors, Doherty wrote.

Doherty noted that the presiding judge in the criminal case barred Franklin’s testimony, which the U.S. Attorney’s Office characterized as a “mortal wound.”

Phillips “displayed the very worst example of abuse and misuse of power and trust bestowed upon a governmental agent, and has brought great shame upon the agency which had entrusted him with that power, responsibility, and authority,” Doherty wrote.

The Vidrines sought $5.18 million for attorney fees, damage to the family’s reputation and emotional distress in their civil case, which went to trial June 7.

“After 15 years and one month, we finally get the verdict that we need,” Vidrine said.

Vidrine, who now owns Vidrine’s CafĂ© in Lewisburg, near Church Point, said the incident “totally rearranged my life.”

The only thing he disagreed with, he said, was the amount that was awarded.

While punitive damages are not allowable in cases brought against the government, Doherty wrote that had they been allowed she would have awarded them in this case “in the hope of deterring such reckless and damaging conduct and abuse of power in the future.”

Vidrine said the law preventing punitive damages against the government needs to be changed to prevent future occurrences such as this.

“There’s no way we could have taken this all the way” without money and two good attorneys — Charles Brandt and Gary Cornwell,” Vidrine said.

Doherty awarded Vidrine $50,000 in lost income; $900,000 in loss of earning capacity; $127,000 in costs and attorney fees incurred in defending the original criminal prosecution; $400,000 in general damages; and $200,000 in loss of consortium.