Habitual offender prosecutions down in New Orleans

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office has scaled back its use of the state habitual offender statute, a law used to raise potential prison time on repeat offenders, often by decades.

The New Orleans DA’s office once led the state in so-called “multiple bills.” A 2016 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts showed Cannizzaro’s office used the statute 154 times the previous year. The Jefferson Parish DA’s office was second in the state, with 116 habitual-offender charges, followed by the North Shore DA’s office — comprising St. Tammany and Washington Parishes — with 64. No other DA’s office came close to those three.

But data from the state Department of Corrections, obtained by The Lens, show that Cannizzaro’s office now lags behind other large jurisdictions in the state. Orleans prosecutors used the statute as a sentencing enhancement in just 63 felony convictions between Nov. 1, 2017 — when new state laws meant to scale back the state’s tough habitual offender statute went into effect — and Oct. 28, 2018, compared to 73 times in Jefferson Parish and 76 times on the North Shore. But Orleans Parish is still far ahead of similarly sized East Baton Rouge Parish, where the habitual offender law was used only once during the same period.

At a City Council hearing on his 2019 budget this month, Cannizzaro said that his prosecutors employed the statute in about 6 percent of cases so far this year in which defendants were eligible, compared to 13 percent last year and 21 percent the year before.

State records detail diesel spill from Bywater Navy base

In early August, hundreds of gallons of diesel leaked from storage tanks located at the abandoned Naval base in the Bywater neighborhood into nearby waterways, documents from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality show. The fuel spilled from an above ground container onto the soil below, seeped into the drainage system and traveled approximately two miles to the Florida Avenue Canal. After discharging into the canal, the diesel flowed another half mile into the reservoir of a Sewerage and Water Board drainage pump station.

According to a DEQ incident report, contractors working for the Army Corps of Engineers first noticed an oily liquid in the Florida Avenue Canal on August 1, and contacted the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center. Along with Coast Guard emergency workers, crews from the Sewerage and Water Board’s Department of Environmental Affairs, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, New Orleans Fire Department HazMat Unit, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and a private contractor called OMI Environmental Solutions were dispatched to the site to cleanup the spill.

By August 9, emergency personnel finished cleaning up 1,700 gallons of “diesel/water mixture” and 18 cubic yards of contaminated debris. Several turtles and ducks were impacted by the spill. And the Sewerage and Water Board pump station temporarily shut down to prevent polluted waters from being pumped into the Industrial Canal.

Entergy leverages charitable giving to avoid City Council fine

To avoid a $5 million fine from the city, Entergy New Orleans is recycling a tactic they used in the campaign that led to the potential sanction: leveraging their donations to lobby the City Council.

Communications obtained by The Lens show that in response to the possible fine — over the use of paid actors who appeared at public meetings to support a proposed power plant — several beneficiaries of Entergy’s charitable giving sent letters supporting the company to New Orleans City Council members. At least two of the authors were directly asked to write the letters by an Entergy employee who oversees the company’s charitable giving.

That Entergy employee didn’t appear to disclose that the letters were related to the potential fine.

“I wasn’t aware of the fine, no I was not,” said Joshua Joachim, the CEO of the Louisiana Region of the American Red Cross, who sent one of the supportive letters this month. “The Entergy rep reached out and asked if I’d be willing to write a letter. The only reason that was given was that there was some education needed on our partnership with Entergy.”

One-quarter of city schools now have filters to remove lead from water

About one-quarter of the city’s 82 public schools now have filters that remove lead from drinking water. They were installed this fall, one year later than expected.

In total, 23 schools have received the triple-filter units that remove nearly all lead from drinking fountain water and will protect against microbes that could be found during boil water advisories, according to school district records.  Another 10 schools are slated to receive the filters by the end of December, but the project likely won’t be complete until the summer of 2019.

The filters are part of a long-awaited promise made in 2016, the same day officials in Michigan were indicted for crimes related to the Flint lead contamination crisis. That’s when the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District announced they would test school drinking water for lead.

But that never happened.

Behind The Lens episode 9: A good corporate neighbor

This week on Behind The Lens, an avalanche on the Gulf floor 14 years ago has led to a massive pollution crisis off the coast. The Taylor Energy oil spill began in 2004 and continues today. The federal government now believes one and a half million barrels of oil, and possibly much more, has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Host and producer Tom Wright speaks with Jonathan Henderson, founder of Vanishing Earth and a longtime observer of the spill.

Also, Michael Isaac Stein has the latest on Entergy New Orleans’ troubles with the New Orleans City Council. The company is facing a $5 million fine over the use of paid actors who appeared at public meetings in support of its eastern New Orleans power plant proposal. Now, the company is leveraging its charitable giving, asking its beneficiaries to write to the council on its behalf.

And Eve Abrams talks about a new phenomenon in New Orleans criminal justice. For years, Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro’s office led the state in the use of the habitual offender statute, which added decades to prison sentences for multiple offenders, including nonviolent offenders. But over the past year, habitual offender prosecutions have gone way down in New Orleans, lagging nearby parishes. But according to defense attorneys, parish prosecutors still use the law all the time to obtain plea deals.

Behind The Lens is available on Apple Podcasts.

Opinion: Meanwhile, on the Fake News front, Jane Place rejects lies about its fight to rein in STRs

Opinion columnist Breonne DeDecker, of the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative — which has criticized the proliferation of short-term rentals in the city — says she and her organization are tired of being slandered by pro-STR groups:

“[Short-term rental] operators repeatedly claim online and at public events that Jane Place has received money from hotels for our work. These statements are, simply put, lies,” DeDecker writes.

“Members of the pro-STR Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity — including Eric Bay, the group’s president — have also claimed that organizations like Jane Place, working against the unchecked proliferation of STRs, are funded by “pro-Confederate monument” groups.

What we’re reading: Louisiana School Made Headlines for Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges. Here’s the Reality.

New York Times reporters Erica Green and Katie Benner uncover the story behind what now appears as a too-good-to-be-true story of elite college acceptances from a small Breaux Bridge private school where the founders falsified transcripts, lied in recommendation letters and subjected students to corporal punishment.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...