Criminal Justice
 

Criminal complaint filed with Louisiana Attorney General over Cannizzaro’s use of fake subpoenas

Two people leading a campaign against New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro asked Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry on Tuesday to open a criminal investigation into the DA’s office use of fake subpoenas.

Kim Ford and Chuck Perkins allege in their criminal complaint that Cannizzaro and his prosecutors office committed forgery, intimidated witnesses and obstructed justice by sending crime victims and witnesses so-called “DA subpoenas,” which purported to be real court orders.

“I haven’t seen any kind of reprimand” against prosecutors for sending the false documents, Ford said in an interview. “He ought to be held accountable for his actions, just like citizens are held accountable for their actions.”

Last year, some legal experts speculated that the practice could be prosecutable under state criminal statutes. A lawyer for the city’s public defenders’ office said it “borders on fraud or forgery.”

But Rafael Goyeneche, a former Orleans Parish prosecutor and now president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, told The Lens last year he believed the practice was probably not criminal.

As The Lens first reported last year, Orleans Parish prosecutors used the notices, which they called “DA subpoenas,”for years to pressure reluctant witnesses to come in for private interviews. The documents were marked “SUBPOENA” and threatened imprisonment and fines for failure to obey.

Louisiana law allows prosecutors to use subpoenas to compel witnesses to appear for such interviews, but they must first file a formal request and get a judge’s approval. That didn’t happen. The subpoenas were fake, and the threats were not legally enforceable — although according to a federal lawsuit and reporting by The Lens, they appear to have been enforced in some cases.

Cannizzaro’s office halted the practice the day The Lens exposed it. Prosecutors in Jefferson Parish and on the North Shore used similarly misleading documents; they too stopped issuing them.

Cannizzaro has faced three state lawsuits, a federal civil rights suit and an ethics investigation by the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel over his prosecutors’ use of fake subpoenas. Charles Plattsmier, who oversees the state agency that handles attorney discipline, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of his investigation.

This is the first formal request for a criminal investigation that has been made public. Cannizzaro’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Normally, his office would handle alleged violations of state law within New Orleans. But because this one involves the DA’s office itself, Ford and Perkins are taking it to the state’s chief prosecutor.

While they do not share a political party — Landry is a Republican and Cannizzaro is a Democrat — the two prosecutors have recently found a common enemy: New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Last summer, both publicly blamed Landrieu’s policies for the city’s high crime rates.

Over Landrieu’s objections, Cannizzaro backed a controversial anti-crime task force in New Orleans set up by Landry’s office. Landry disbanded it after a federal judge found that it did not have the authority to make arrests in the city.

Landry’s office is also leading an investigation of New Orleans Councilwoman and Mayor-elect Latoya Cantrell related to her use of a city council credit card.

Cannizzaro referred the matter to Landry’s office, saying he faced a potential conflict of interest because he had endorsed Desiree Charbonnet, Cantrell’s opponent.

In an unusual move, Cannizzaro publicly announced his recusal weeks before the November general election, in effect announcing the existence of the criminal complaint,.

Perkins said he and Ford are making their own complaint public in part to push Landry’s office to take it seriously.

“He is the state attorney general. And we can clearly show that laws were broken,” Perkins said. “I’d like to think that Jeff Landry would do his part.”

Meanwhile, Perkins and Ford are seeking a special election to oust the DA from office, called “CanCannizzaro.”

That effort has a long way to go. Ford said she has gathered more than 100 names of people who said they would volunteer in a recall drive against Cannizzaro.

The group has not yet filed a recall petition. Ultimately, they would have to gather about 86,000 signatures — one-third of the city’s registered voters — in order to force a recall election.

Last year, an effort to recall Jefferson Parish president Mike Yenni, who sent sexually suggestive texts to a 17-year-old boy, fell far short of its mark.

Ford said the use of fake subpoenas was part of a broader pattern of aggressive tactics by the Orleans Parish DA’s office.

She pointed to the DA’s practice of transferring juvenile cases to adult court and his use of “multiple bills” that raise the potential prison time for repeat offenders, including those convicted of nonviolent crimes. Cannizzaro’s office uses the habitual offender law more than any other DA’s office in the state, The Advocate reported in 2016.

She also criticized Orleans prosecutors’ use of material witness warrants — arrest warrants used against witnesses who the DA’s office says won’t cooperate. Cannizzaro has defended the practice, saying they are a last resort to secure convictions for violent offenders.

The Lens found one case in which the DA’s office cited a fake subpoena in seeking an arrest warrant for an alleged domestic violence victim. That case was dismissed before the woman could be arrested.

But in a federal civil rights case, lawyers for the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps alleged that they had found several cases in which witnesses were jailed for not obeying fake subpoenas. Cannizzaro has countered that they also ignored valid trial subpoenas.

“We see it in our lives,” Ford said. “We’re both concerned about what’s going on in our community. People need to know that this is not OK.”

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About Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado covers the city of New Orleans and other local government bodies. He previously worked for Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.