A federal raid at the Canal Refinery in Church Point almost 15 years ago unraveled into a faulty indictment thanks to the story of a cocaine addict and two federal agents who were engaged in an extramarital affair.
Sept. 5, 1996 was a day of chaos for employees at the Canal Refinery in Church Point when armed federal agents barged into the facility, threw files onto the floor — and prohibited female employees from using the restroom or making arrangements for their children to be picked up from daycare.
It's been almost 15 years since that Swat Team — commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — spent hours rummaging the Church Point refinery in search of hazardous waste. And though no hazardous waste was ever found, Hubert Vidrine of Opelousas, Canal's former manager, was still facing the issue in federal court as recently as June.
The "hazardous waste" the EPA was in search of more than a decade ago reportedly had been spotted the day before when State Police stopped a truck that was delivering materials to Canal. Field tests showed the materials were questionable, which prompted the EPA to send samples to a laboratory for actual testing.
But the investigating agent failed to disclose that a lab test was pending, and based on the opinion of another EPA employee, the EPA had reason to believe the materials were in violation of federal environmental statutes.
According to the civil lawsuit Vidrine has since filed against the U.S. government, "subsequent lab reports did not show that Tank 402 contained hazardous waste ... For the following three years, no charges were filed against Canal or any employee of Canal based upon the evidence obtained."
It was also during those three years that one EPA technical expert turned criminal investigator, Keith Phillips, received a tip from a "source" that Vidrine, through his private petroleum brokering side business, knowingly bought materials that exceeded the regulatory threshold for contaminants.
The "source," Mike Franklin, was a former business associate of Vidrine's who told agents that he obtained a lab report on these materials and warned Vidrine about the "bad stuff" before Vidrine purchased the hazardous waste from another private broker, according to court filings.
But what no government agent told the grand jury when it convened to decide whether Vidrine would be indicted was that Franklin had never actually produced any lab report to support his story. Nor had the government.
The grand jury also never learned that Franklin had a long history of cocaine use, three drug arrests on his record and federal tax liens worth almost $100,000.
Six months after Vidrine was indicted on federal felony environmental charges that could have brought Vidrine to prison for up to five years and imposed millions of dollars in fines, the federal prosecutor on the case told Vidrine's defense attorney that the government still didn't have the "hot" lab report that was necessary to implicate Vidrine.
And two years later, after U.S. District Judge Tucker Melancon barred the government from going to trial without that report and the federal appeals court wouldn't even hear the government's appeal on Melancon's decision, the prosecution persisted.
Court filings say the government went so far as to hypnotize Franklin in an effort to spur his memory of where to find the lab report that tied Vidrine to a truck load of contaminants, a truck that was never proven to have existed.
"In this case, they had no evidence that Mr. Vidrine did anything that harmed anyone — not intentionally, not negligently, or even innocently," Vidrine's lawsuit states.
Throughout the entire investigation, Agent Phillips and FBI agent Ekko Barnhill, who were jointly investigating the case, were having a sexual relationship, according to court filings, one that gave Phillips a reason for needing to travel from Dallas to Lafayette as often as he did.
The United States government eventually dismissed the indictment against Vidrine in September 2003, the night before the trial was set to start and seven years after the raid on Canal took place.
Vidrine waited another seven years to sue the government for lost income, lost earning capacity, legal costs to defend prosecution, damage to he and his wife's reputations, emotional distress, humiliation and loss of consortium.
His side job as a petroleum broker was growing quickly when the investigation began, he claims, but ceased almost immediately after his name became associated with "bad stuff."
U.S. District Judge Rebecca Doherty presided over the civil lawsuit in June. An employee in Doherty's office said Friday that there is no timeline on when a verdict could be released.
Vidrine's fight to recoup more than $5 million from the feds is another example of how even one slip-up from the federal government can have far-reaching effects on residents in Acadiana. And though the nature of Vidrine's case is different than the indictments exposed in The Independent's cover story, "CONVICTed," the civil cases that have followed the indictments show that the federal government's actions here at home potentially cost taxpayers millions of dollars in resources to prosecute — and millions to defend the when they're challenged.
Louisiana has joined nine other states in support of Indiana’s appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that the Hoosier State’s ban on sam-sex marriage violates the Constitution.
The Saints are being cautious in an effort to minimize risk of re-injury.
LSU Health Sciences Center says people with a common, hard-to-treat kind of lung cancer can join a new national trial to test drugs faster.
As New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis spoke about the opening of training camp, steep, tree-covered mountains were in full view behind them.
The family of fallen cyclist Lon Lomas is speaking out after the release this week of the man charged with his death.
"The solutions are obvious: undo consolidation, or amend the charter to make this hybrid attempt at a new form of government work better."
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
Marijuana source of disputes for HOAs; experts say still safe to fly; Russian-supported attacks on Ukraine and more national and international news for Friday, July 25, 2014.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is considering whether to get involved in a lawsuit against Gov. Bobby Jindal for his attempts to undermine use of the Common Core education standards in Louisiana's public schools.
The latest meeting of a south Louisiana flood board that stirred political turmoil with a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry is taking place amid uncertainty over the future of the lawsuit — and the board's own membership.
The photos taken nearly a mile under the Gulf of Mexico are so clear that small holes are visible in a lifeboat that may have gone down or been scuttled when a passenger ship was sunk by a Nazi submarine in 1942.
Advocate columnist and Jindal shill Quin Hillyer has been against the New Orleans levee board lawsuit from day one, but a recent piece targeting author/activist John Barry prompted the perfect rebuttal from the board’s former vice-president, who takes Hillyer to task on just about every distorted claim he’s made on the issue.
Thousands of people who bought health insurance through the marketplace created by the federal health care overhaul face price hikes next year that could top 10 percent.
Louisiana fell one spot in an annual national ranking of child well-being that looks at poverty, education and health access.
A federal judge has decided he doesn't need to hear more arguments in the case of a gay couple who want a Louisiana marriage license.
Saints again bring playoff aspirations into 2014 campaign.
New details in the case against the man arrested for last week’s bomb threat and bank robbery has surfaced, including a MidSouth Bank surveillance video showing the alleged suspect attempt an early-morning bank robbery.
Parents and teachers who support the Common Core education standards sued Gov. Bobby Jindal Tuesday over his actions against the multi-state standards, accusing him of illegally meddling in education policy.
An arrest was announced this morning in connection with last week’s bomb scare at UL Lafayette.
Attorneys, judges and others interviewed by LaPolitics expect 15 to 20 district judge races this year.
"I feel like I'm under siege," an attorney said recently over drinks at Galatoire's Bistro in Baton Rouge. "We all do. Every time I turn around somebody wants a check. District attorney races. The judges. They're killing us."
As a requirement for running for Congress in the 6th District, former Gov. Edwin Edwards has filed his financial disclosure statement with the U.S. House showing his income in 2013 totaling $242,787.
Unlike those swindled by Bernie Madoff, the victims of Texas businessman Robert Allen Stanford’s Ponzi scheme won’t be getting any relief from the Securities Investor Protection Corp.’s emergency fund after a recent appellate court ruling.
The legal challenge is part of a continuing struggle over Common Core, which has become controversial since the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the standards in 2010.
The lone Democrat to announce he's running for governor, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, criticized Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's budgeting tactics as "running the state like a big Ponzi scheme."