By Danae Columbus, opinion columnist
With District Attorney Jason Williams’ tax fraud trial scheduled to start in six weeks, now is the time that a seasoned defense attorney like Billy Gibbens would be putting the final touches on the best deal he could strike for his client, in this case Williams. Williams and his former law partner Nicole Burdett are charged with trying to inflate $700,000 in tax write-offs between 2013 and 2017.
Though the attorneys at Tuesday’s pretrial hearing said they were “ready for trial,” they could have meant that federal prosecutors are not yet ready to announce the terms of any agreement.
The best deal Gibbens could hope for would probably involve Williams pleading guilty to one or two counts and receiving a suspended sentence with house arrest and a big fat fine. In that scenario, Williams would also forfeit his law license and be removed from office. After three years, Williams could ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to reinstate his law license and, if successful, practice civil law. Williams has already begun accepting civil cases at his private law firm.
Why would Williams want such a deal? Though he continues to fight the good fight proclaiming his innocence, Williams knows that U.S. District Judge Lance Africk could find him guilty on multiple counts. Some believe the death of Martin Feldman, the former judge assigned to the case, is a blow that Williams cannot overcome. Feldman’s rulings indicated he thought the government’s charges were more than a bit over the top. If Williams had been an ordinary citizen, the government might have handled the income tax charges as a civil matter.
In advance of Williams’ potential departure from office, close aides Aaron Washington and Tyrone Walker have already accepted new positions. Washington is now a top executive with Sheriff Susan Hutson, and Walker has moved on to the Urban League.
If Williams resigns, first assistant Ned McGowan would become chief prosecutor on an interim basis. Depending on the timing of the resignation, Gov. John Bel Edwards could call the election to coincide with the fall mid-terms. Qualifying would begin July 20 — just two days after the trial is scheduled to start.
Who could succeed Williams? Currently, the list is short. City Councilmember at-large JP Morrell initially considered a run in 2019 but said last week he is not interested now. Neither is former judge and mayoral candidate Desiree Charbonnet.
Former Criminal Court Judge Keva Landrum, who was the second-place finisher, appears to be available. Though she was nominated to be U.S. attorney, Landrum never had a hearing by the U.S. Senate. Perhaps Landrum’s close relationship with former state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson became an impediment in the rigorous background check process.
Williams’ former first assistant Bob White, who was used as a scapegoat last year, has the integrity and experience to make an excellent DA. And no list would be complete without former Criminal Court Judge Arthur Hunter, who ran a disappointing third in 2019. Hunter has been DA-in-waiting and could quickly spring into action. Though Hunter is extremely knowledgeable on all criminal justice issues, his previous campaign needed a spark.
The public was not paying close attention to the DA’s race in 2019. Now — with fear of crime the primary issue in every neighborhood — the race would take on more importance.
Williams was among the first wave of progressive criminal justice reformers to be elected as their city’s top prosecutor. Most progressive DAs have come under public criticism for their reform-driven agenda at a time when shootings and other violent crimes are escalating. Citizens in those cities are stuck with their prosecutors until the next election cycle.
New Orleans might have a unique opportunity to elect a new prosecutor who still believes in unanimous juries and abhors over-zealous prosecution and prohibitive jail sentences but is also determined to hold perpetrators, regardless of age or race, more accountable for their actions.
I was one of those people who thought Williams would never get tried or convicted. Perhaps the joke is on me.
STATE REP. DELISHA BOYD NAMED RISING STAR BY STATE PARTY
State Rep. Delisha Boyd, a businesswoman who was elected last year to represent the voters of Algiers to the Louisiana House of Representatives District 102, received the Louisiana Rising Star Award at the Louisiana Democratic Party’s True Blue Gala on May 21. Boyd operates a successful real estate brokerage firm at 4747 Earhart Blvd. and has been making a name for herself in Baton Rouge by supporting an agenda of equity and inclusion.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.