Criminal Justice
 

Councilman pushes New Orleans DA to release delayed fake subpoena info

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office still has not provided information to the New Orleans City Council about its use of fake subpoenas, more than a month after Cannizzaro told council members he would. And Council President Jason Williams wants to know why.

In a letter to Cannizzaro obtained by The Lens, Williams is requesting that Cannizzaro provide the information, which the council requested last fall. At the time, Cannizzaro estimated it would be available by mid-May.

“We are now beyond the timeline you provided for disclosure, however several items remain outstanding,” Williams wrote. Williams’ spokeswoman Katie Hunter-Lowrey said the letter was delivered Wednesday morning.

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 the total number of fake subpoenas prosecutors sent to witnesses between 2014 and 2016, as well as information about the office’s use of material witness warrants — used to arrest crime witnesses and victims who are allegedly refusing to cooperate with prosecutors.

The request came in the midst of scandals over Cannizzaro’s aggressive tactics.

In April 2017, an investigation by The Lens revealed that the office had for years used so-called “DA subpoenas” to pressure witnesses to meet in private with prosecutors. The documents were marked “SUBPOENA” and threatened jail and fines for failure to obey. But they weren’t authorized by judges or issued by clerks, as the law requires. They were fake. Lawyers and legal experts called the practice unethical, if not illegal. The day The Lens’ story was published, Cannizzaro announced the end of the practice. Two other DA’s offices that were using similar documents likewise discontinued the practice.

Cannizzaro had also been taking heat over the use of witness warrants since an April 2017 report by Court Watch NOLA found that prosecutors had the warrants issued against crime victims, including victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Cannizzaro defended the use of material witness warrants and said his prosecutors would continue to request them when necessary.

Days before the council sent the letter, the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the DA’s office over its use of fake subpoenas and material witness warrants.

The DA’s office responded to most of the council’s request in November, sending a large seafood box full of files to City Hall. But it was unable to compile the data about fake subpoenas or material witness warrants.  In addition, the office only partly responded to requests about its diversion program.

In a letter to the council, Cannizzaro said that compiling the additional information would take time because it doesn’t keep a centralized inventory of documents in its case files. Finding it would require a manual review of 150,000 cases. That review had begun, he wrote, but it could take “as long as six months.”

“It has now been over seven months since your response to the Council, and we have received no supplemental information,” Williams wrote in his letter. “I hereby request that you provide the supplemental data … or provide justification for why this information is being withheld.”

Earlier this month, Cannizzaro’s spokesman Ken Daley told The Lens that the six-month timeline “was an estimate, not a deadline.”

“The information will be provided to the Council once it has been gathered,” he wrote in an email

At the time, Daley said he could not provide an estimate as to when the review would be complete. Daley did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

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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.