Sheriff’s Deputies Protect Corporate Interests in Bayou Bridge Case

Iraq war veteran and pipeline opponent Ramon Mejia was trying to stop Energy Transfer Partners from illegally constructing a pipeline on a cypress tree-covered swath of land deep in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin when St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s deputies arrived.

Mejia had a letter dated July 25 confirming he and other activists had been invited to the property by one of the hundreds of co-owners of the 38-acre property. He wasn’t on the easement, the part of the property where construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline was in full swing.

When deputies told him he was trespassing, he at first thought it was a misunderstanding.

If anybody should be in trouble that morning of Aug. 18, it should be the pipeline company, he reasoned. Without legal permission, it had cut a large swath of centuries-old trees and was in the process of installing the pipeline in a deep, water-filled trench it had cut through the property.

Minutes after arriving, deputies arrested Mejia — along with two other activists and this reporter — for felony trespassing on “critical infrastructure,” which was defined to include oil pipelines and pipeline construction sites under a Louisiana law that took effect Aug. 1.

“They weren’t there to mediate or to understand what was going on, they were there to put an end to the problem, to arrest folks and take them out of there, that way the pipeline could continue getting built,” said Mejia, adding that the deputies seemed more interested in protecting the oil company than enforcing the law.

Mejia didn’t know it at the time, but the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office gave 58 deputies permission to begin working extra duty side jobs – or moonlight – for Hub Enterprises beginning in late July. Hub Enterprises is contracted by the pipeline company to provide security for the controversial project.

In a decision issued Thursday, State District Court Judge Keith Comeaux ruled that Energy Transfer Partners was trespassing when it installed the pipeline on the property, but granted the company eminent domain. He awarded landowners in the suit $150 each for expropriation and damages to the property.

“As landowners and people with deep roots in Louisiana, we feel violated that the court didn’t take into account this wasn’t just a trespass—BBP [Bayou Bridge Pipeline] went ahead and damaged the land and laid the pipeline knowing they didn’t have permission and not taking into consideration how that pipeline is going to affect the Atchafalaya Basin in the future,” said landowner Theda Larson-Wright, a co-plaintiff on the suit.

For months, the land has been ground zero in an epic battle over the constitutional rights of landowners and protesters, a battle that has pitted landowners and protestors against Energy Transfer Partners and St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s deputies.

Landowners contend their Fifth Amendment property and due process rights were violated when the company installed the pipeline on the property without their permission. They plan to appeal the judge’s decision.

Protestors maintain they were legally exercising their First Amendment right to oppose the project when deputies directed by the pipeline company arrested them under a new Louisiana state law that went into effect on Aug. 1. The ALEC-inspired law redefines pipelines as critical infrastructure and imposes felony charges on those convicted of entering pipeline construction sites without authorization.

Pipeline opponents say the new law has had a chilling effect on activists’ First Amendment right to protest and landowners’ Fifth Amendment property and due process rights, particularly when combined with the use of public servants to provide corporate security.

Public Law Enforcement or Corporate Security

Since Aug. 1, sixteen individuals have been arrested under the “critical infrastructure” felony law. Thirteen of those arrests – including Mejia’s — were made by St. Martin Parish sheriff’s deputies approved to work for the pipeline project.

Meija, who was released the day of his arrest after posting $2,500 bond, said he and the others arrested with him were not trespassing.

“We were on private property, we were welcomed there, we showed them the [landowner’s] letter and here you have uniformed officers who are supposed to be enforcing the rule of law. … They’re presenting themselves as uniformed officers … but actually they’re just paid off by the oil company,” said Mejia.

It’s unknown whether the deputies who arrested Mejia were working their regular shifts or were moonlighting at the time. Deputies wear full uniforms and use parish-issued weapons and gear whether on duty as public servants for the parish or clocking in as part of Energy Transfer Partners’ private security force.

The practice has activists and some police experts questioning whether St. Martin Parish sheriff’s deputies on the payroll of a private security firm contracted by Energy Transfer Partners can adequately protect the constitutional rights of individuals who oppose the project.

Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who has studied the private employment of off-duty police officers, said conflicts of interest can arise, particularly when private companies hire public officers to use their state-granted authority to advance private interests.

“When you add to the mix a moonlighting job for a private employer who’s subject to protest, it implicates that conflict of interest,” said Stoughton.

“As public officials, officers have an obligation to ensure they are honoring and indeed protecting protesters’ First Amendment rights. The interest in respecting and protecting First Amendment rights can come into sharp conflict with the private employers’ interests in not having protestors in or near or around their work sites,” he said.

“You tell me,” Mejia said, speaking of the arresting deputies, “are they carrying out their state mandate or following orders of their corporate employer?”

The Bayou Bridge pipeline is part of a larger project intended to connect Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota to refineries in St. James Parish and nearby export terminals. It was in North Dakota that ETP’s security force clashed with protesters from the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and their supporters. After a series of contentious public permit hearings with debates between industry speakers and pipeline opponents in Louisiana, the Bayou Bridge project was approved and construction began in January.

Almost immediately, activists associated with L’eau Est La Vie [Water is Life], a resistance camp founded and led by four local Native women, began nonviolent direct actions against the project, which cuts through more than 700 water bodies, including the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest river swamp in North America.

It is thought to be the first-ever large-scale use of non-violent direct action to oppose the fossil fuel industry in Louisiana, a previously oil-friendly state.

To counter the resistance, Energy Transfer Partners maintains a hefty security force and St. Martin Parish sheriff’s deputies aren’t the first public servants to work private security for the Bayou Bridge pipeline project.

An investigation earlier this year by The Appeal found Louisiana probation and parole officers were using state-issued equipment and state-owned vehicles while moonlighting for pipeline company contractors, a practice that was stopped shortly after it was reported.

Around the same time, St. Martin Parish sheriff’s deputies beefed up their presence near Bayou Bridge worksites, sometimes traveling in parish-owned boats and sometimes shuttled through swamp’s narrow, twisting bayous by boats contracted to provide transportation for the pipeline company.

In response to a public records request, Bridge the Gulfwas provided with a list of 58 employees who have been approved by the St. Martin Parish sheriff to work extra duty jobs for Hub Enterprises.

According to guidelines provided by the sheriff’s office, deputies who want to work extra duty assignments must complete a request form prior to beginning such employment.

Copies of request forms provided show that each of the 58 employees were approved provide “armed security for Hub Enterprises at locations they are providing security within St. Martin Parish.” Both the guidelines and directions on the request form are clear – “Do not accept employment without prior approval.”

Yet each form was approved on Oct. 3 – the day after our records request was submitted and more than two months after the approved starting date of July 27.

Conflicting Interests

Extra duty guidelines for the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office acknowledge that moonlighting could create conflicts of interest and stipulate that the sheriff review each request.

St. Martin Parish Sheriff Ronnie Theriot did not respond to a request for comment. Dwayne Regan, vice president for security at Hub Enterprises, said he is not able to discuss the company’s work on the project and referred questions to Energy Transfer Partners, which refused to discuss its security arrangements.

Stoughton said it becomes complicated when a private company calls the police and an on-duty officer comes out but that on-duty officer also works off-duty for the private company.

“Now how are they going to behave on-duty, knowing that their potentially lucrative off-duty job may depend on their on-duty performance,” he said.

“The easy question to ask is in any given situation when you have protestors, if there were no officers working for the private employer, if instead one of the employees for the private employer called the police and said ‘we have some protestors’, how would the police respond? If the officers that are working for the private employer respond differently, it’s a potential problem,” Stoughton said.

An Eminent Domain Battle Looms

Of the felony arrests made to date, 11 individuals — including Mejia — were arrested for trespassing on the contested land.

After learning from local environmental organizations that the company was cutting centuries-old cypress trees on his property, landowner Peter Aaslestad on July 27 filed for a temporary injunction to stop construction. Later the same day, Energy Transfer Partners filed an expropriation petition, admitting it lacked easement agreements with about half of the property’s co-owners.

An expropriation hearing was scheduled for Sept. 10.

Normally, eminent domain — or expropriation — takes place before construction begins and companies are required to have easement agreements with or expropriation judgments against all landowners in order to legally proceed with construction.

But without legal permission, Energy Transfer Partners began construction on the land earlier this year, working through the summer to cut cypress trees, dig a trench and run pipeline through the remote property.

“They made a calculated business decision that it was cheaper to violate the law than follow it. While the court did find the company trespassed on our clients’ land, the damages award validates their business decision,” said Pam Spees, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel for the plaintiffs, who plan to appeal to the judge’s decision to grant eminent domain.

Construction Continues, Felonies Mount

As the eminent domain battle was taking shape in court, Energy Transfer Partners continued construction on the property, which is home to alligators, wild hogs, armadillos, water moccasins and other wildlife. At night the heavy, humid air is alive with the buzzing of thousands of mosquitoes, cicadas and other insects who live in the swampy forest.

Landowners, whose families have been in the area for generations, say they have a duty to protect the land and its inhabitants. With all other options exhausted, they gave activists permission to occupy the property to prevent further destruction.

During August, construction continued unabated. Activists stepped up their resistance, erecting a skypod, a type of aerial tree blockade intended to stop further construction of the pipeline.

The day after Mejia was arrested, deputies cut the lifeline to the skypod, leaving the activist inside dangling precariously more than 30 feet off the ground.

After several hours without food or water, Luca, who does not want to be identified by her real name due to threats against herself and fellow activists, came down from the tree and was tased and arrested for felony trespassing by deputies. She was taken to the local hospital, where she said deputies told hospital staff they were “security for the pipeline”.

“The police and the state are colluding together, and the company is calling the shots,” she told Teen Vogue. “The police are their security force. The industry is another incarnation of colonialism; they are cutting down trees and stealing land at the expense of life while polluting low-income, marginalized communities.”

Hoping to call attention to the company’s illegal work and what appeared to be collusion with sheriff’s deputies, on Labor Day, activists invited local media to the land. No arrests were made, but the following day – once most media was gone – deputies brutally arrested four protestors, including Cherri Foytlin, a co-founder of the L’eau Est La Vie resistance camp.

“We were exercising our First Amendment right to assemble and we had permission to be there. Energy Transfer Partners did not have permission to be there. But St. Martin Parish sheriff’s deputies — at the direction of pipeline company supervisors — pepper sprayed us, chased us down and violently arrested us,” said, Foytlin who along with another protester was violently tackled and arrested on felony trespassing charges.

By September 9, construction on the property appeared to be complete and the deep trench holding the pipeline had been filled with dirt and the shredded remains of the once vibrant cypress forest.

The next day — just before the scheduled injunction hearing — Energy Transfer Partners entered into a legal agreement with landowners, voluntarily agreeing to stop work on the property until the November eminent domain hearing.

“Of course, Energy Transfer Partners agreed to stop work – that’s because there was no more work to be done – they’d already completed the work before they entered into that agreement,” said Foytlin.

“Energy Transfer Partners knew exactly what it was doing – it knew it had to complete that work before the court hearing because there was a good chance if they hadn’t entered into an agreement the judge would have shut it down,” said Foytlin, who said she considers the sheriff’s deputies to be just as responsible as the company for the destruction of the cypress forest as the pipeline company.

Nearly two weeks after the agreement was signed, deputies on Sept. 18 arrested L’eau Est La Vie co-founder Ann White Hat and this reporter for trespassing on the property during the Labor Day media event.

“Instead of protecting the landowners of St. Martin Parish from an out-of-state corporation, instead of enforcing the law and stopping the illegal construction, these deputies are out here getting paid to protect that corporation. They were paid to unjustly arrest and brutalize us – we wouldn’t have to be out here if the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s department was serving the landowning public as well as it’s serving that corporation,” said Foytlin.

Danger in the Water and Online Threats

Activists say moonlighting by deputies has created a blurred line between corporate and public interests and contributed to violence and threats of violence against pipeline opponents.

“Not only did the deputies brutalize us, but they stood by and watched workers assault us with absolutely no consequences, which is like saying it’s open season on protestors. The message those deputies are sending to workers and anyone else is that violence against us – or anyone you don’t agree with — is okay,” said Foytlin, who said pipeline opponents receive a steady stream of threats.

During an early morning monitoring trip in mid-October, White Hat said two boats filled with activists had just passed an easement crossing when what appeared to be a security boat took notice, aiming a blinding spotlight on the group and following the smaller boats at a high rate of speed. As the larger boat approached, it turned suddenly, churning the narrow bayou’s murky water and causing an enormous wake that partially submerged one of the activists’ boats and sank the other.

“That was a very aggressive and dangerous move and we were just lucky no was killed,” said White Hat, who said the security boat didn’t stop, leaving pipeline opponents in the dark, water moccasin and gator-infested water with no way out of the swamp.

It was hours before a local fisherman passing by stopped to help shuttle the group out of the swamp. White Hat said those on the boats lost phones, cameras and other gear and for several days were unable to return to some of their more remote campsites.

The driver of the larger boat later bragged about sinking the protesters boats at a local boat ramp, according to a letter sent by attorney Bill Quigley to the Coast Guard and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Quigley, who is representing the protesters, urged the agencies to investigate the incident for criminal endangerment.

Alexis Daniel, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, said neither the company nor its contractors was involved.

“What we can tell you is that at the time of the alleged incident, we did not have any boats on the water, nor did our contractors. We do not wish harm on anyone regardless of their opinion on the project, and would never do anything to put someone in harm’s way as is being alleged,” said Daniel.

On Halloween, the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office posted pictures on Facebook of trash allegedly left behind by the protestors. The post exploded with angry comments, some including threats of physical violence against the protestors. One comment suggesting protesters be “shot on the spot” is still visible on the Sheriff’s Office page.

Daniel said Energy Transfer Partners had nothing to do with the post.

“As we have stated to you many times, we are not involved in the decisions or actions of the St Martin Parish Sheriff’s department, however, we do appreciate their support,” said Daniel.

The St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Mejia, who has a wife and young childen, still has no idea if the deputies who arrested him were on duty or working for the pipeline company.

To date, none of those arrested have been charged by District Attorney Bo Duhé, who has said he is investigating the cases before deciding whether to press formal charges.

Mejia said not knowing what will happen next is like having a weight over his head. If charged and convicted, he could face up to five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.

“They try to make everybody think police officers are the good guys — that’s how I’ve been raised since I was a kid, that’s what I’ve been taught in school — that police are the good guys, but here they are, the ‘good’ guys, doing work for these oil companies that are destroying our ecosystems.”

Disclosure: Karen Savage is an investigative journalist who for most of 2018 was embedded with the L’eau Est La Vie resistance camp in Louisiana, where she was twice arrested for reporting with the permission of a landowner on the contested property. In 2013, she co-authored a story with Cherri Foytlin, co-founder of L’eau Est La Vie.