Criminal Justice
 

Nearly a month late, Cannizzaro still hasn’t provided fake subpoena info to council

The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office has yet to provide any records or information to the New Orleans City Council on the use of fake subpoenas, nearly a month after DA Leon Cannizzaro initially estimated the information would be available, Cannizzaro’s spokesman Ken Daley confirmed.

“We are still in the process of compiling the requested information and have not yet delivered it to the City Council,” Daley wrote in an email. He couldn’t say when the job would be finished.

In October, the council sent the DA’s office a letter requesting a laundry list of information, including how many cases the office accepts for prosecution, its conviction rate, and how many juvenile cases it transfers to adult court.

The council also asked for information about two recent scandals in the DA’s office. One is its use of material-witness warrants, which the DA’s office uses to arrest witnesses and crime victims for allegedly failing to cooperate with prosecutors. The other is its use of fake subpoenas, which legal experts said was unethical if not illegal practice.

The Lens in April 2017 first reported about the office’s use of so-called “DA subpoenas” — phony documents used to pressure witnesses into meeting privately with prosecutors. Legitimate subpoenas for private witness meetings must be authorized by a judge, not just a prosecutor. Cannizzaro discontinued the practice the day the story was published.

In its letter, the council asked for a count of the total number of times the warrants and fake subpoenas were used from 2014 through 2016.

The DA’s office was able to provide much of what the council sought, delivering a large seafood box to City Hall in mid-November. But providing the information on the warrants and fake subpoenas would take some time, Cannizzaro said at the time, because the DA’s office doesn’t maintain a centralized inventory of documents in its case files; fulfilling the council’s request would require a manual review of 150,000 cases. That review had begun, but would take “as long as six months,” Cannizzaro wrote in his November response to the council.

Six months was up in May.

“The six-month period you have referenced was an estimate, not a deadline. The information will be provided to the Council once it has been gathered,” Daley wrote yesterday in an email to The Lens. He increased the office’s estimate of the number of cases under review by 30,000, bringing the total to 180,000.

Last year, The Lens successfully sued Cannizzaro after the DA’s office denied a public records request to provide fake subpoenas its prosecutors issued in 2016 and the first four months of 2017. Two other DA’s offices, on the North Shore and in Jefferson Parish, were able to provide similar documents.

Cannizzaro’s office complied only in part with a judge’s order in The Lens’ case, now on appeal.

According to a March filing from Cannizzaro’s attorneys in connection with their appeal, the DA’s office asked The Lens to voluntarily dismiss the lawsuit because of the DA’s ongoing search for information for the City Council. Once that was complete, The Lens “would simply have to make a public records request, and the District Attorney would then turn over all pertinent documents located in the course of that search.”

“[Lens reporter and lead plaintiff Charles] Maldonado has rejected this offer, which would likely have his sought-after documents in his hands before this case reaches a final resolution,” the lawyers wrote, saying the search for the documents was estimated to be completed some time in June 2018.

As of Wednesday, Daley said the DA’s office could not provide an estimate of when the records search will be done.

The ACLU of Louisiana dropped a similar public records suit late last year because the records would soon be publicly available through the council, according to a December press release from the civil liberties group.

ACLU of Louisiana Staff Attorney Bruce Hamilton declined to comment on the DA’s failure thus far to produce the documents, citing the group’s ongoing federal civil rights suit against the DA’s office over its use of fake subpoenas and witness warrants.

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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.