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.
Jindal describes the privatization as a cost-cutting move to save the state more than $100 million this year, while improving services and medical training.
A Baton Rouge judge is reconsidering his decision to throw out Gov. Bobby Jindal's revamp of teacher tenure and salary laws.
Ambassador François Delattre will also receive an honorary doctorate of francophone studies at the commencement at the Cajundome.
During the past seven games, the Saints have forced two turnovers — a league low during that span. Now they're trying to figure out what has changed since their first seven games, when they forced 15 turnovers.
Choice cuts from Acadiana’s news media for Friday, Dec. 20, 2013:
For many fans, it was their third consecutive year participating in French Quarter parade.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Friday, December 20, 2013:
Lafayette Parish School Board member Greg Awbrey deserves an attaboy for his unexpected vote during Wednesday’s meeting approving a mediation session between the board and Superintendent Pat Cooper.
The cable television network's suspension of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson from the hit reality show has drawn criticism from the governor of Robertson's home state.
The State Bond Commission gave preliminary approval to the borrowing plan Thursday without objection.
The Pediatric Clinic is housed in the same location previously closed by state budget cuts in June 2012.
Three-term Louisiana senator facing tough re-election battle is next in line for Energy Committee chairmanship.
In a letter distributed during Wednesday night's meeting, Lafayette Parish School Board member Shelton Cobb, in his final meeting as board president, called on his fellow board members to start focusing on the children and stop battling Superintendent Pat Cooper.
Joshua Dore of Breaux Bridge was sentenced Tuesday to 1.5 years in prison for counterfeiting, according to a press release issued by U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley’s office on Wednesday.
School super Pat Cooper alleges Lafayette Parish School Board member Mark Allen Babineaux, an attorney, publicly disclosed the details of a closed-door executive session.
Sun Belt commissioner presents title and practice gets under way in preparation for Saturday
Kerry Bertrand’s charge was upgraded Tuesday by an Acadia Parish grand jury from manslaughter to second-degree murder for his alleged role in the drowning death of his stepdaughter, Skylar Credeur.
Sean Payton announced Wednesday that veteran Shayne Graham was New Orleans' new kicker, and that rookie Terron Armstead would get his first start at left tackle.
Should new parents be required by law to attend special classes before being permitted to raise their child? It’s an idea state Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, is seriously considering.
The agenda for Wednesday’s meeting of the Lafayette Parish School Board tells it all: The board has lost sight of its elected purpose.
A public Mass will be held Thursday in New Orleans for artist George Rodrigue, who died Saturday of cancer at age 69.
Eight former employees of The Times-Picayune have sued the newspaper and parent Advance Publications Inc., alleging their layoffs violated a longstanding "job security pledge" and age discrimination laws.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration hasn't done an independent performance review of its $363 million privatization contract for mental health and addictive disorder treatment services.
"Whether it's the tackle position, whether it's a player on defense ... we're going to look closely at what our options are and what gives us the best chance."
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