The former federal EPA agent who lied under oath to conceal an inter-office, extramarital affair that led to the malicious and wrongful federal indictment of a Church Point oil refinery manager was sentenced in federal court Wednesday to five months in prison and five months of home confinement upon release.
Keith Phillips, a 20-year EPA veteran from Dallas who joined New Orleans FBI agent Ekko Barnhill in a three-year, “over-zealous” investigation of then Canal Refinery manager Hubert Vidrine and played a large role in Vidrine’s criminal environmental charges, was terminated from the federal agency in July of 2011 and subsequently indicted on one count each of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying under oath in a related civil case.
Vidrine sued the federal government for malicious prosecution after his criminal environmental charges were dismissed, which a U.S. district judge notes was “almost four years after the return on the indictment, more than seven years after the execution of the search warrant, and one month before the criminal trial was scheduled to commence.” It was during the civil trial that Phillips, in 2008, lied in a deposition when he denied having a sexual relationship with his joint investigator Barnhill. Additional court documents reveal that Phillips was also dishonest when he testified before the grand jury that heard Vidrine’s criminal case and handed down the indictment.
In October 2011, three days after Vidrine was awarded $1.6 million in damages for his malicious prosecution, Phillips signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to perjury and obstruction of justice.
“[Phillips] set out with a flagrant and reckless disregard of the rights of Hubert Vidrine,” U.S. District Judge Rebecca Doherty says in her civil judgment. “Whether Agent Phillips’ true motives were ... to have a cover and vehicle for his illicit sexual affair, whether he had a personal vendetta against Hubert Vidrine, whether as a brand new criminal investigator — giddy with the newly minted power and authority he had previously lacked when serving in a supporting role — or whether a combination of all three, it is patently clear Agent Phillips lacked the innate judgment and experience necessary to counter his overzealousness.”
U.S. District Judge Richard Haik said during the sentencing hearing that U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which are established only as advisory and not mandatory, recommend a 10-16 month sentence for Phillips for each count with up to $60,000 in fines. But Haik took into consideration Phillips’ military service and 20 years of civil service with the EPA when handing down the sentence, he said.
“The pain you caused other people, I don’t know what’s right or wrong, but you did stipulate [in the plea agreement] that you intended to undermine justice,” Haik said during the hearing. “If not for your history and military service, I’d have probably given you 16 months.”
In addition to the five months in federal detention and five months of home confinement, Phillips was also ordered to undergo two years of supervised release and pay $8,000 in fines.
“Hubert Vidrine is an independent, hard-working, scrappy, almost stereotypical Cajun gentleman,” Doherty says in the civil judgment against the government. “Neighbors and members of their small community were asking them, again and again, about the indictment and the details of the criminal case ... many people in their small community just assumed Mr. Vidrine was a criminal, merely because he had been indicted. [The Vidrines] felt genuine humiliation, discomfort and embarrassment. Mr. Vidrine was stripped of perhaps his most valuable asset, his good name, and the consequence of that may never be fully ameliorated.”
Read more coverage from The Ind on the Hubert Vidrine soap opera