(Updated) Councilman maintains innocence after arrest on stalking, criminal mischief charges

In a statement released Friday afternoon, St. Mary Parish Councilman James Bennett said he maintains his innocence on all charges pending against him after he was arrested Wednesday.

Attorney Nicholas LaRocca is representing Bennett.

"The charges are without any merit and should the District Attorney accept these charges and prosecute Mr. Bennett he is prepared to vigorously defend such charges and is confident that the truth will emerge, and he will be exonerated," the statement said.

The St. Mary Parish Council doesn’t appear to have any action it can take in regard to Bennett's spot on the council given that he hasn't been convicted of a felony.

Bennett, 50, of Morgan City, was arrested by Berwick police Wednesday on a warrant charging him with stalking a woman, which is a felony. Morgan City police also arrested him on two counts of criminal mischief, which are misdemeanor crimes, in a related incident. In July 2018, Berwick police arrested Bennett and charged him with remaining after being forbidden in another incident related to his two arrests Wednesday. Bennett pleaded guilty in September 2018 to the remaining after being forbidden charge in Berwick mayor's court and paid $301 bail.

The St. Mary Parish government home rule charter listed on the parish government’s website says a council member shall forfeit the office if a member is convicted of a state or federal felony.

However, the charter doesn’t say a member can be removed from office after an arrest. Parish Council Attorney Eric Duplantis said he had no comment on the matter. Parish Council Chairman Gabriel Beadle said he’s not aware of any disciplinary action the council could take against Bennett at this point.

The Berwick police warrant that Bennett was arrested on Wednesday stems from an investigation that began Feb. 1 in which a complaint was received concerning Bennett allegedly stalking a woman who lives in the Berwick area. Upon officers investigating the complaint, police learned that Bennett was in fact responsible for the behavior associated with stalking, Berwick Police Chief David Leonard Sr. said in a news release.

Further investigation revealed that Bennett used resources to gain knowledge of who was visiting with the victim and later confront the victim, Leonard said.

Morgan City Police Chief James Blair said Bennett was also booked Wednesday in Morgan City on two counts of criminal mischief in connection with the case. The charges stem from evidence Morgan City police gathered indicating that false complaints had been called into the Morgan City Police Department, Blair said.

Berwick police confirmed that Bennett’s July 2018 arrest on a charge of remaining after being forbidden was related to the Wednesday arrest.

Bennett pleaded guilty Sept. 10, 2018, in Berwick mayor’s court to the remaining after being forbidden charge in connection with his July 31 arrest, said Gina DeHart, clerk for mayor’s court. Bennett paid $301 bail in connection with that case.

Criminal mischief and remaining after being forbidden are both misdemeanors.

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