Activist accuses Impastato of threats



Saturday, May 29, 2004
By Paul Bartels and Richard Boyd
St. Tammany bureau

The frequent antagonism between St. Tammany Parish government and coalitions of homeowner activists and environmentalists sometimes gets personal.

That apparently was the case recently with the rezoning for Autumn Haven subdivision in Big Branch when Parish Councilman Joe Impastato of Lacombe allegedly threatened to do bodily harm to attorney and longtime Save Our Wetlands point man Luke Fontana.

Upholding the Zoning Commission, the Parish Council last month rejected the appeal of Big Branch residents who opposed the planned 93-lot project. The opponents have sued the parish in an effort to block the development.

Fontana was representing residents who appealed the commission's decision. In a sworn affidavit, he alleges Impastato, during an April 26 meeting with the residents at which Fontana wasn't present, threatened "violence and arrest" if he showed up at another parish meeting.

Fontana's attorney, Frank Silvestri, said in a May 13 letter to Impastato that the councilman told Fontana's clients they shouldn't bring Fontana to another parish meeting and that if Fontana were younger, Impastato "would take him outside to kick his ass."

Fearing for his safety, Fontana says, he didn't attend the May 4 commission meeting at which a major item of interest to Save Our Wetlands was on the agenda -- the zoning and other changes requested for the huge Lakeshore Estates-Lakeshore Village development south of Slidell.

Nor did he attend the Parish Council meeting two days later for the same reason, Fontana says.

Silvestri notes that comments made "in the heat of the moment" shouldn't necessarily be taken seriously, but "as an elected official you must appreciate the potential chilling effect your words may have on the civic process."

Accordingly, Silvestri asks Impastato for "prompt written assurance" to Fontana and his clients "that these remarks were not intended to be taken seriously" and that Fontana and his clients "will be afforded their constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and participation . . . without fear of intimidation or harassment of any kind."

Impastato agreed in a written response sent out a week later.

"I can assure you and Mr. Fontana that any comments made by me . . . were not intended to be threatening nor intimidating to Mr. Fontana or anyone else," Impastato said. If they were interpreted that way, he said, then his remarks were taken out of context.

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