For New Orleans' new prosecutor, high hopes, a legal cloud

Former city council member was indicted on federal felony charges accusing him of tax fraud

By Kevin McGill
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A New Orleans city council member takes the oath of office as the city’s new district attorney Monday, facing a pandemic-related backlog of cases and high expectations from criminal justice reform advocates who rallied around his autumn campaign — despite his indictment on federal tax charges.

Jason Williams leaves the council, after having served since 2014, to take the oath in a planned online ceremony. He takes over an office he sought after fiercely criticizing the hardball tactics of the outgoing incumbent, Leon Cannizzaro, who did not seek re-election.

Williams ran despite being indicted in the summer on federal felony charges accusing him of tax fraud — accusations he said were ginned up by prosecutors for political reasons. His motion to have them dismissed was rejected in a ruling issued Friday at federal court. Last month, pandemic-related complications prompted the judge to delay proceedings — including a trial that was supposed to have started the same day Williams was being sworn in.

Williams won a December runoff with 58% of the vote, despite the hovering court case.

“Its one of those things in New Orleans where folks were a little cynical of the indictment,” said Derwin Bunton, a public defender who ran unsuccessfully for judge last year. “Folks were willing to give him a chance.”

“The DA-elect has been pretty clear about this,” Williams spokesman Tyroone Walker said Friday. “He believes that there is a better chance of him being hit by a car or a bus than being convicted in this case because he’s innocent.”

Williams’ transition team, assembled last month, includes advocates sometimes at odds with prosecutors, including representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and Innocence Project New Orleans, which works to free wrongly convicted prisoners.

Walker said Williams planned to outline new priorities for the office. “One of the top of which is to focus on violent crime,” he said.

And, said Walker, Williams wants to put a stronger emphasis on diversion programs for people arrested for drug crimes and suspects who have mental health issues. “Those people need help from clinics and hospitals and the district attorney’s office can help in the process of getting them that support without unnecessarily clogging up the court dockets.”

Cannizzaro served two six-year terms as district attorney. He was credited by Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor who heads the nonprofit watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, for improving communication between police and prosecutors when he took over 12 years ago. Goyaneche is adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward Williams.

“I want to hear what Jason’s agenda is going to be and how he’s going to go about reforming, as well as what he’s going to do to protect the public,” Goyaneche said Friday.

Cannizzaro drew harsh criticism from criminal justice advocates, and Williams, for sometimes using “material witness” warrants to jail uncooperative witnesses — including, at times, victims of domestic violence or sex-related crimes. He has said the tactics are rarely used but sometimes necessary to prosecute dangerous people. Williams led a City Council debate to condemn the practice.

Williams’ job also will be complicated by the coronavirus pandemic that has delayed jury trials and complicated the scheduling of hearings for criminal suspects.

“Sometimes the courts are in person, sometimes the courts are by Zoom. And then it has to be negotiated how anybody even has notice to make appearances,” said Simone Levine of Courtwatch NOLA, a nonprofit watchdog group. “There’s just so much dysfunction in the system right now.”

This, as violent crime rates have increased. There were 202 homicides in the city in 2020, a 71% increase over 2019, according to police department statistics.

And then, there is the federal tax case.

In refusing to dismiss the case Friday, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman said Williams and a co-defendant law partner had failed to prove that federal prosecutors sought to charge them because Williams was a public official running for office or because Williams is Black.

Feldman, however, did give credence to the defense’s point that other clients of a tax preparer at the center of the case — Henry Timothy, who pleaded guilty last week to tax fraud — were not being prosecuted.

“To be sure, the defendants have persuaded the Court that it is curious and troubling that, to date, the government has failed to or opted not to investigate either Timothy’s conduct in preparing his clients’ returns or his other clients’ conduct in the preparation of their returns,” the judge wrote, adding that the decision will be “fair game” for defense attorneys.