By Gordon Russell, Andrea Gallo, and John Simerman | NOLA.com | July 25, 2021
When Jeff Landry took office as Louisiana’s new attorney general in January 2016, he brought in his friend and benefactor, businessman Shane Guidry, as a special aide.
Among other changes, Guidry helped him “rebrand” the office’s investigative division, changing its name to the Louisiana Bureau of Investigation and shaking up its roster. Guidry served as the branch’s unofficial head.
One of the division’s first hires was Aaron Verrette, then a deputy with the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office, who received a significant promotion and raise after being named special agent in charge of the office’s cyber crime unit and investigator supervisor, at an annual salary of $80,000.
Verrette was brought on despite a checkered past: In 2010, about a year before he was hired in Plaquemines, he had resigned from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office while under criminal investigation. Then-Sheriff Newell Normand said at the time that Verrette had refused to cooperate with an internal probe into possible drug dealing by deputies, and accepted his resignation. Verrette, who was never charged in the case, also had close ties to Guidry, who had hired him after he left the JPSO.
As it happens, Verrette didn’t last long in Landry’s office. After about two months, he resigned in lieu of being terminated, according to records provided by Landry’s office.
This time, the problem had nothing to do with drugs or an accusation of a crime. Instead, several of his subordinates complained that he was an aggressive sexual harasser who berated them constantly and bragged of his relationship to Guidry. An internal investigation found merit to their claims. Despite both the criminal and sexual harassment investigations, Verrette remains working in law enforcement, now back at the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Verrette might have been the first high-ranking aide to Landry to be accused of sexual harassment, but he wouldn’t be the last. In late 2020, Pat Magee, who headed the office’s criminal division, faced multiple allegations of sexual harassment before resigning this year.
One of the top priorities of the unit overseen by Verrette was to nab child pornographers and people who used the internet for sex trafficking and other crimes. The work, at times, involved examining pictures of naked people.
Some of his charges complained that he was uniquely unsuited for the job.
“When we come across adult pornography (males), Mr. Verrette will make comments such as, ‘we need to talk to that guy,’” complained one female subordinate, whose name is redacted in internal documents. “On his last warrant, I was doing forensics for him … and during the preview he was on his phone on Instagram and began showing me guys he thought was hot and one in particular was a male with a large penis, and he asked me if I knew what to do with it because he sure did.”
The investigator went on: “I did not ask to see it, I did not want to see it and I was working. I will not be subjected to that type of unprofessionalism.”
A male subordinate complained that Verrette hazed him in a similar way, telling him he wanted to turn him into a sexual partner as a “bottom.”
At least three employees gave statements saying Verrette had harassed them and gave them reason to fear for their jobs, according to documents obtained by The Times-Picayune and The Advocate in a public-records request.
A couple of them said that Verrette often invoked the name of an influential supporter, and suggested he was untouchable. The name of the key supporter is redacted in most cases: “SAC Verrette constantly reminded them of his relationship with (redacted) and threatened to use that relationship to have them fired,” a memo summarizing an internal investigation into Verrette reads in part.
But in at least one instance, the AG’s Office neglected to redact the name of the key supporter.
In that case, an employee says that Verrette could be heard “screaming through the walls” about potentially disloyal employees, and that he was threatening that “he would call Mr. Guidry and have them fired.”
Verrette declined to comment for this story, citing JPSO policies that prohibit employees from speaking to the media.
But when Verrette was confronted with the sexual harassment allegations in 2016, he complained that he was being “set up.” He didn’t deny any of the specific remarks attributed to him, but said the comments were merely jokes.
His bosses weren’t buying it. They determined he had violated numerous departmental policies, put him on administrative leave and took away his badge and gun. He quickly resigned.
The records indicate that Guidry, Verrette’s erstwhile patron, was on board with the decision. A short summary of the investigation’s findings notes: “Deputy Guidry agreed that SAC Verrette should be placed on administrative leave and an internal investigation into all of the allegations against Verrette should be conducted immediately.”
The investigation into Verrette concluded that he violated the attorney general’s policies against sexual harassment. While the Attorney General’s Office defended the employees who reported that Verrette sexually harassed them, Landry took a different approach in the more recent case involving Magee.
Magee, the director of the office’s criminal division, was docked about $20,000 in pay after an investigation into a subordinate’s complaint faulted his behavior but found that his inappropriate comments didn’t constitute sexual harassment.
Magee wound up resigning amid the flap, but Landry’s office then targeted the whistleblower who complained about Magee. Magee maintained that he had not sexually harassed anyone.
Amid the Magee case, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate asked the Attorney General’s Office to provide copies of all sexual harassment complaints lodged against members of the office since 2016, and records showing how those complaints were resolved.
Officials in the Attorney General’s office said that before the start of 2019, the office did not track complaints “by subject matter.” Describing a broad search for sexual harassment complaints as “unduly burdensome and expensive,” officials asked for specific names.
Reporters subsequently filed a request for the records related to Verrette based on their research.
How exactly Verrette got hired for such a high-profile position at the AG’s office, despite his record, is unclear.
When Verrette applied for his job, he did not disclose that he had resigned under pressure from JPSO. In explaining why he left the agency, he said only, “joined another department” — even though more than seven months passed between his departure from JPSO and his hiring in Plaquemines Parish.
The job application form asks: “Have you ever been fired from a job or resigned to avoid dismissal?” Verrette checked the “no” box.
The unusual circumstances of Verrette’s departure from JPSO, where Guidry was a longtime reserve captain, were publicized at the time. After Verrette resigned from the Sheriff’s Office, Guidry hired him to work security at his company, according to sources with knowledge of Verrette’s hiring.
Normand, the former sheriff, said Tuesday that he was on vacation and couldn’t recall Verrette or details of his resignation.
Detectives turned to Verrette as a criminal suspect in 2010 while investigating his supervisor in the JPSO robbery division, Sgt. John Carroll, over allegations of domestic violence and drug activity.
Verrette was accused of retrieving steroids from Carroll’s house. Detectives searched Verrette’s home and found steroids in the room of his roommate, another deputy who was booked in the case, records show. Verrette denied the allegations in a brief statement to detectives.Carroll and the other deputy were arrested but never prosecuted. Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said it’s clear to him that Landry’s office ignored Verrette’s history at JPSO when it hired him, and that it was Guidry who brought Verrette on board.
The circumstances of Verrette’s resignation from JPSO “would have been an automatic disqualifier to any agency making a decision based on merit,” Goyeneche said. “That person would not have been hired by any law enforcement agency that did a background check on him.”
A criminal file on Verrette and the two other JPSO deputies was sitting in the Attorney General’s office, which adopted the case in 2010 after Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick’s office recused itself. Buddy Caldwell was attorney general then.
“They had it in their possession. Of course they knew about it. On top of that, it was reported in the newspaper,” Goyeneche said of the drug investigation and Verrete’s resignation.
“It’s not the Louisiana Bureau of Investigation. It’s the Shane Guidry Bureau of Investigation. He makes up the rules and Jeff Landry rubber-stamps them. Who works for who?”
Guidry, who did not return phone messages for this story, is perhaps the AG’s most generous benefactor.
A couple of months ago, Guidry announced that he had installed Landry on the board of directors at the oilfield-services company he runs, Harvey Gulf International, at an annual salary of between $50,000 and $100,000. Guidry said Landry’s legal advice was important for his board, but state law prohibits the attorney general from engaging in the private practice of law outside of his public office.
Earlier this month, this newspaper reported that Landry’s office sent a team of Louisiana Bureau of Investigation agents to track down the biological mother of a child Guidry adopted, after the woman had contacted the child without permission. The agents also visited the child’s uncle in Mississippi. Landry has declined to explain why his office deployed agents despite there being no apparent crime.
Verrette wasn’t unemployed for long after his ignominious exit from the Attorney General’s Office. He went back to his former job at the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office for several years. Then, last year, he returned to the JPSO.
Former Plaquemines Parish sheriff Lonnie Greco, who took office a year after Verrette was hired there the first time, said he was glad to take him back.
Greco praised Verrette’s work as a detective and said he was unaware of the circumstances of his hasty departure from the AG’s office.
“I don’t know what happened in between,” Greco said. “He told me he had some issues with somebody who wouldn’t follow the orders he was giving them to do. He just said backstabbing was going on, he couldn’t take it anymore, so he came back and worked for me.”
Greco said he spoke with Landry’s office before rehiring Verrette but was left in the dark.
“What I had gathered was, they just don’t like to give bad references to cause people some issues,” Greco said. “They just said they don’t give out any kind of comment.”
Greco, who rehired Verrette a few months before leaving office, said he didn’t speak about the matter with Guidry, though he said Guidry is a longtime acquaintance and was one of his financial backers. Greco recalled Verrette requesting time off to watch over Guidry’s children when he was out of town.
Last year, as part of a “pre-polygraph questionnaire” that Verrette took before rejoining the JPSO, he was again asked whether he had ever been fired or asked to resign from a job, records show.
His answers were redacted by the Sheriff’s Office. Regardless of how he answered, some of the details of his past were uncovered. A spokesman for Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto declined to answer questions for this story about the circumstances of Verrette’s hiring.
A background check performed in early 2020 noted that “Mr. Verrette resigned from JPSO while under criminal investigation.”
The official in charge of the background check tried to learn more about Verrette’s short tenure at the Attorney General’s Office, faxing a request that in big bold letters said: “Please include any complaints against the subject.”
That didn’t happen, though this newspaper a year later received a copy of the complaints against Verrette by sending a similar request. Landry’s office largely did not answer the newspaper’s questions about the Verrette case for this story, but said that when JPSO requested Verrette’s file, “an entry level HR employee who was just months into his job and who was not involved in Mr. Verrette’s internal investigation filled out the employment verification request notating that Mr. Verrette resigned after only a few weeks of employment.”
“Although the request was accurate, it did not include that an internal investigation took place,” said an unsigned email from Landry’s press account in response for this story.
According to the background report, a human resources manager at the Attorney General’s Office simply told the JPSO that Verrette had resigned; “no other information was provided.”
The criminal investigation by the JPSO a decade ago led Verrette to resign and two colleagues to be arrested on drug charges, which the attorney general’s office under Caldwell eventually refused.
The records of the drug case have been expunged, according to the JPSO.