A hearing Wednesday on next year’s budget for Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro devolved into a shouting match between him and New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams, a defense attorney and fierce critic of the DA’s office.
Williams took particular aim at the office’s use of fake subpoenas, which was first reported by The Lens in April. The office used the notices, which were legally worthless, to pressure witnesses into talking to prosecutors.
He also criticized Cannizzaro’s practice of seeking arrest warrants for crime victims and witnesses — and in some cases jailing them — for refusing to cooperate with prosecutors.
The watchdog group Court Watch NOLA highlighted that practice this spring. At least one rape victim was among those jailed in 2016.
“We don’t want to be embarrassed by The New York Times, Washington Post, other national media,” Williams said, “who think that we’re running some kind of southern-fried, backwoods operation that is putting rape victims in jail and sending out fake subpoenas.”
The fake subpoenas were not authorized by a judge or issued by the court clerk, as the law requires. But they were marked “SUBPOENA” and falsely threatened jail and fines if recipients ignored them.
The day The Lens reported on the practice, Cannizzaro’s office announced it would stop.
The Jefferson Parish DA’s office used similar notices and also pledged to stop.
“Are you suggesting to me,” Williams asked Cannizzaro, “at your age, as an officer of the court, that you didn’t realize what you were doing was improper and unethical?”
As he has in the past, Cannizzaro characterized the practice as improper but essentially harmless.
“What I’ve said is, no one was incarcerated. No one was fined,” he told Williams. He urged the councilman to cite an example of someone who had been jailed or fined.
Williams didn’t have one. However, he did highlight a case, reported by The Lens, in which the DA’s office sought an arrest warrant for an alleged domestic violence victim in part because she had ignored a fake subpoena.
A judge granted the arrest warrant, but the DA’s office dropped the case after a judge refused to reschedule it again. The warrant was recalled before the woman could be arrested.
At the budget hearing, Cannizzaro at first claimed his prosecutor sought the warrant because the woman had ignored a genuine, court-issued subpoena.
That’s untrue. The prosecutor’s motion for the warrant referred to the fake subpoena, a fact that Cannizzaro has acknowledged in an interview.
Williams pointed out the inaccuracy. “The truth of the matter is, facts are facts,” he said. “We can’t just bend things to our convenience.”
Cannizzaro also falsely claimed that the victim was a police officer and had ignored requests to appear in court. In fact, the defendant was a police officer.
He corrected himself quickly, but Councilwoman Susan Guidry said the woman’s job was irrelevant. Domestic violence victims may have good reasons to be reluctant to testify, she said.
“Even if this victim had been a police officer, and even if the subpoena had been court-issued, that would not give other DAs across the state the feeling that they had a right to put her in jail,” Guidry said.
Cannizzaro wants the City Council to restore about $600,000 cut from his budget in 2017. That represents 9 percent of his city funding and about 4 percent of his overall $15 million budget, which includes state funding.
“The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office is the worse municipally-funded DA’s office in the state of Louisiana,” he said.
Though the DA’s budget is larger than many others in the state, Cannizzaro argued it is far below average when the city’s population and crime rate are taken into account. He has made this argument every year since at least 2011.
Part of this year’s budget cut was a check on Cannizzaro’s practices. Williams and other council members have criticized Cannizzaro because his office prosecutes so many of the cases police bring in.
Williams accused Cannizzaro of setting a “quota” of prosecuting 90 percent of cases brought to him. He based that on a grant application that set a 90 percent case-acceptance goal for domestic violence cases.
Cannizzaro said the grant application set an estimate, not a quota.
Guidry said it’s hard to believe that 90 percent of the cases brought by the New Orleans Police Department are worthy of prosecution.
But half of the budget cut had nothing to do with the acceptance rate, Williams contended. The city had boosted Cannizzaro’s budget to fund a conviction integrity unit, tasked with uncovering faulty convictions. That unit was scrapped, so the council pulled its funding, Williams said.
Cannizzaro disputed Williams’ explanation, saying the councilman never told him that portion of the cut was tied to the conviction integrity unit.
According to Cannizzaro, the $600,000 funding cut caused cuts in counseling for victims and witnesses, as well as to its pretrial diversion program, in which prosecutors drop charges after defendants meet certain conditions.
He warned the cutbacks in counseling for victims and witnesses may cause his office to seek more arrest warrants for them.
“If it’s true you have cut the diversion program” and witness counseling, Guidry responded, “then really shame on you. Talk about putting politics above public safety.”
Cannizzaro said the budget cut forced him to move misdemeanor cases into Criminal District Court. Those cases had been tried in Municipal Court — an idea that Cannizzaro originally championed — where they could be dealt with more quickly.
And that change, Cannizzaro said, has resulted in a more crowded jail.
Guidry rejected his claim that it was a budget-saving move.
“The cases take so much longer to go through criminal court, so it’s costing your office more,” she said. “So it’s a bad decision all around.”
She also questioned other decisions she said have unnecessarily added costs to the DA’s office, such as moving juvenile defendants charged with certain crimes into adult court.
Guidry said Cannizzaro’s office does that in more than 60 percent of eligible cases, far more than other DAs in the state. Those cases move much more slowly than they would in Juvenile Court, Guidry said.
“We need the DA’s practices to come into the 21st century,” she said.