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Ex-Veterans Affairs chief’s defamation lawsuit against state can proceed, appeals court says

Department of Veterans Affairs (Ed Schipul/Flickr)
January 09, 2021

An appeals court has refused to throw out a defamation lawsuit that Louisiana’s former Veterans Affairs secretary filed against the state’s legislative auditor and inspector general in 2017.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera and Inspector General Stephen Street conducted a joint investigation and concluded in 2016 that David LaCerte had allowed fraudulent behavior in his department.

LaCerte, a former U.S. Marine, alleged in his lawsuit that the scathing investigative report and accompanying press release wrongfully accused him of criminal conduct, including falsifying public records by providing an inaccurate military biography on the state Department of Veterans Affairs website and engaging in “questionable” hiring, spending, travel and organizational practices during his tenure with the department.

The state asked that the lawsuit be thrown out, claiming Purpera and Street have constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech.

“We find these defendants cannot, as a matter of law, demonstrate that their speech was constitutionally protected,” the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal ruled Monday.

“We are compelled to find that the State and official capacity defendants, as juridical persons rather than natural persons, do not have a constitutional right to freedom of speech,” the appellate court added.

A juridical person is a legal entity created by the law which is not a natural person, such as a corporation or government agency created under state statutes. It is a legal entity having a distinct identity and legal rights and obligations under the law.

LaCerte’s attorney, Jill Craft, said Wednesday that the 1st Circuit’s decision “represents a solid step toward righting this wrong and restoring Mr. LaCerte’s name, reputation, and honor.”

“We are obviously thrilled with the decision and hope this will bring some measure of justice for Mr. LaCerte,” she said in a written statement. “Mr. LaCerte served this Country honorably and with distinction. Unfortunately, the defendants published false information about him essentially accusing him of lying about his military service. The saddest part of this saga is that the defendants knew better when they published the false statements.”

The state Attorney General’s Office, which represents the defendants, declined comment on the ongoing litigation.

The case will continue toward a trial.

Attorneys for Purpera and Street have said the report’s content was not false, defamatory, slanderous or libelous.

The appellate court ruling is expected to be appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

LaCerte served the agency under Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration between 2010 and 2015. He resigned his post in fall 2015 amid the probe into his office.

The report and accompanying press release were released in February 2016. LaCerte’s lawsuit was filed in January 2017.

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