The most explosive accusation from last year’s race for lieutenant governor is still smoldering.
By Jeremy Alford
It was supposed to be the email that rocked Louisiana’s political landscape. It was supposed to help sway a major election. But instead it got forwarded around by reporters and insiders, and whispered about in the quilting circles where hacks and flacks like to swap tales. At the end of the day, the email was reported on only by the Bayou State’s alternative media.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne
Today, however, the email is a reflection of something else. It’s a reminder of just how ugly Louisiana politics can be, just how loose candidates on the attack have become. It’s also an inside look at how easily elected officials can be threatened and extorted. Plus, it says something about the growing influence of Web-based reporting and how elected officials are treating the medium today.
Inboxes received the email around mid-afternoon on Oct. 11, 2011. It was probably the most defining moment of the lieutenant governor’s election that you never heard about. Sporting the blue-and-red logo of Billy Nungesser, the email and an attachment were sent to journalists covering the race and to supporters of the Nungesser campaign.
It detailed a complaint that was supposedly filed with the Louisiana Bar Association’s Disciplinary Counsel against incumbent Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. The complaint, penned by Nungesser consultant Kent A. Gates, accused Dardenne of having an “inappropriate relationship with a woman from Baton Rouge” named Mary Jennings. Dardenne was further accused of representing Jennings in a case and, after ending their personal relationship, refusing to give her a share of the resulting settlement.
“Mr. Dardenne has tried to hide this relationship for years,” Gates wrote in the complaint. “It is unethical that he represented her in a court of law after ending their affair, but the fact that he never distributed to her the damages she was awarded shows his true character. This woman has wanted to file this complaint for years, but has been bullied and threatened by Mr. Dardenne to remain silent so that his political career was not tainted.”
George Kennedy, Dardenne’s campaign manager, immediately had a response for reporters when the email went out just 11 days before the 2011 primary. “It’s a despicable act by a desperate campaign,” Kennedy said. “It has no basis in fact.” Like the email itself, though, the response received very little play.
But it’s what Dardenne’s camp didn’t do that’s more telling. According to Kennedy and Dardenne, a high-profile press conference was set up for the week of the election — a press conference that was cancelled at the last minute. A star-studded cast was tapped to attend, including former East Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau, former Chief Deputy Sheriff Greg Phares and Hillar Moore, who had represented Dardenne in a private capacity before succeeding Moreau as Red Stick’s current district attorney.
All three men were asked to submit affidavits explaining what they knew about Jennings, and all complied. Their live performances in the press conference, though, were put on ice. Poll numbers going into last year’s primary weekend showed Dardenne coasting to victory, which he eventually did with 53 percent of the vote.
“It became a question of whether there was broad enough coverage to make it a real campaign issue,” Dardenne says.
As for why Dardenne is speaking up now, months after the election, just look a little further down the political timeline. As in four years from now. That’s when Dardenne is expected to make a run for Louisiana’s top post when two-term Gov. Bobby Jindal will presumably be leaving office.
“Ms. Jennings hand-delivered a typewritten letter ... making outrageous and false accusations about our having a sexual relationship and asking me to pay her $62,000 to keep quiet.”
Wouldn’t it be wise to get all of this out there and on the record now, so that the issue won’t be intermingled with others in 2015?
“Certainly,” Dardenne says.
Yet cover for a future race isn’t the only reason Dardenne is talking. He says the “wise political strategy” may have been to ignore the issue, since it never made its way into the mainstream media.
“But the accusations were beyond the pale of politics,” he adds. “There has been enough banter about it in the blogs. I found it objectionable that stories were even written. It wasn’t even Mary Jennings making this complaint.”
Rather, it was Gates who wrote the complaint, excerpted below, to the Louisiana Bar Association’s Disciplinary Counsel:
As part of normal research into John L. Dardenne, a Baton Rouge attorney, for the Louisiana Lt. Governor’s race this year, I came across information about a potential affair that he had with a woman by the name of Mary Jennings. Three people provided me with her name and the allegations. As part of due diligence, I reached out to Ms. Jennings and had several conversations with her, but I want to focus on a specific conversation that I had with on October 4, 2011.
I called Ms. Jennings to follow-up on a conversation about the need to come forward. I found her to be intimidated and somewhat in fear of retribution. She even told me that Mr. Dardenne had people speak to her about keeping quite (sic) in the past during the height of the political campaign. Ms. Jennings confirmed again that the information I had obtained was true and that her last contact with Mr. Dardenne was in June 2006 at the time he was first running for statewide office.
Ms. Jennings informed me that there were other woman (sic) she knew about, and that the relationship began about three months before Mr. Dardenne was married to his current and only wife in or around 1985. She informed me that the relationship continued for a period of less than ten years, and the most distributing part given Mr. Dardenne’s profession was that he had represented her in a civil personal injury case involving an auto accident. She then told me that he had strongly encouraged her to settle the case and never gave her the $14,000 she was owed as part of the settlement.
I then confirmed that Ms. Jennings had indeed filed a civil suit on August 4, 1993, in the 19th Judicial District Court in the Parish of East Baton Rouge (C0806167860). On May 2, 1994, Mr. Dardenne filed a motion of counsel with the court to enroll as the counsel of record for Ms. Jennings. Mr. Dardenne represented her through his motion of dismissal with prejudice on April 1, 1996.
Photo by Robin May
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser
Phone messages requesting individual interviews with Gates and Jennings in early January were not returned by the end of the month.
Dardenne, for his part, says he never dated Jennings while he was married to his current and only wife, nor did he date her for a period of 10 years, as alleged in the complaint. He maintains he only dated Jennings for a year or so before he was married in August of 1983. “I never had an ongoing sexual relationship with her,” he says.
But Dardenne did hear from Jennings “on several occasions in the 1990s, sometimes seeking legal advice and other times seeking counsel about the many problems she has experienced in her life.” This included criminal charges, bankruptcy and child support matters, none of which Dardenne says he was retained for; instead, he says he referred her to attorneys specializing in these areas.
In 1994, however, Dardenne did represent Jennings in a personal injury case. While he was never the lead attorney in the bankruptcy case, Dardenne says he did have to enroll as special counsel in the bankruptcy proceeding to continue pursuing the personal injury claim, since they were running through the courts simultaneously.
The negotiated settlement from the personal injury claim was $17,800, and it was tendered on Dec. 20, 1995. There were about $5,700 in approved attorney fees from that sum, of which Dardenne received $2,000, according to court documents. Dardenne says Jennings received all monies that were due to her.
All of this is just background for the moment when the plot really thickened. In June 2006, while still serving as a state senator, Dardenne announced his candidacy for secretary of state. Not long after, Jennings scheduled a rare weekend meeting in Dardenne’s downtown Baton Rouge law office.
“Ms. Jennings hand-delivered a typewritten letter to my law office making outrageous and false accusations about our having a sexual relationship and asking me to pay her $62,000 to keep quiet,” Dardenne recalls.
The final line of the letter was bolded and underlined: “By doing so, you secure my future and protect yours.”
The letter also instructed Dardenne to “put the money in my account at Hancock Bank or drop it off at my house… either is fine with me.” Exactly $22.90 was requested for the “emotion, stress and trauma that I have suffered.” Another copy of the letter was later sent through the mail to Dardenne’s law office.
“I did not respond or contact Ms. Jennings,” Dardenne adds.
But Dardenne, a lifelong resident of Baton Rouge, did contact three legal eagles — Moore, Phares and Moreau, the same three guys who were on standby during the final days of the lieutenant governor’s race last year.
According to affidavits, Moore advised that he “believed the letter constituted extortion.” Phares said he investigated the case and was prepared to help Dardenne file extortion charges. Moreau, meanwhile, said he “believed a further investigation by law enforcement personnel should be undertaken.”
Instead, the harshest treatment Jennings received may have come courtesy of Dardenne’s wife, Cathy. Based on the affidavits, she eventually called Jennings, in front of several witness, and said that “she and her husband were not going to pay her any money and that she should leave their family alone.”
Dardenne says his family decided against taking legal action at the time and never heard from Jennings again. “We thought about it and chose not to have this troubled lady arrested.”
That was the end of the story. Until last year’s election for lieutenant governor. At the time, Dardenne prepared a written statement with a number of revealing sections. It was never released, but Dardenne did write within that he didn’t “know whether to pray for Billy Nungesser or sue him.”
Dardenne says he hasn’t taken legal action against Nungesser, a fellow Republican, because he was originally expecting law enforcement agencies to get proactively involved. That’s because state law prohibits such complaints from being made public. However, it now appears the complaint was never actually filed during the campaign, Dardenne says, and time has helped brush the matter under the proverbial carpet.
Nungesser, who is still president of Plaquemines Parish, refused to comment on this story. Specifically, he was asked in an interview request if he still stood by the allegations launched by his campaign.
This story was first published by ThePoliticalDesk.com, a non-partisan website based in Baton Rouge that covers Louisiana politics.
in case you missed it