In a hearing Thursday, a judge awarded The Lens roughly $30,000 in attorney’s fees in a public records lawsuit which sought 16-months of fake subpoenas issued by Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. The suit has stretched on for nearly three years. 

The legally worthless documents were used to convince reluctant witnesses to speak with prosecutors. The DA’s office announced it would cease the practice the same day The Lens first exposed the use of those documents in April of 2017. Cannizzaro’s office, however, denied a public records request for about a year-and-a-half of fake subpoenas, arguing they would be too difficult to locate. The Lens later filed a lawsuit seeking the documents. 

Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese awarded the sum after Lens attorney Scott Sternberg, of Sternberg, Naccari and White, took the stand to defend his firm’s invoices under questioning from his associate Michael Finklestein and an attorney for Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. 

“The recognition of the $30,000 judgment is a recognition of the importance of the case to the New Orleans community, and we’re thrilled with the judge’s ruling,” Sternberg said in an interview after the hearing.

After approximately 20 minutes of testimony on specific invoice entries, Reese took back the floor. 

“Court has reviewed the bill … and I think it’s reasonable,” Reese said. 

The total, including both billed hours and related expenses, came out to $32,058.10. The Louisiana Public Records Act provides that anyone who successfully sues a public agency for wrongly denying records requests should be awarded “reasonable attorney fees and other costs of litigation.”

Reese did ask Sternberg to make one adjustment. Both Sternberg and Finklestein billed in accordance with a maximum fee schedule for lawyers hired by the state outlined by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry. During the course of the case, Finklestein raised his hourly fee to match his experience. 

Reese asked that he keep his hourly rate the same throughout the invoice, dropping the total amount by $107.50. 

In an initial ruling in October of 2017, Reese found that most of the documents The Lens was seeking were public records and should be released. Later that fall, the DA’s office announced it was searching through 150,000 case files for the documents.

One year later, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling. Cannizzaro argued the manpower required to review files could affect his office’s ability to carry out its duties. But the district and appellate court both argued the public agency’s duty transcends the workload it will require. He challenged that decision as well. 

The most recent decision came in January 2019, when the Louisiana Supreme Court denied Cannizzaro’s request to reconsider lower court rulings requiring his office to find and turn over the records.

In spite of the ruling, it’s unclear whether The Lens’ attorneys will be able to collect their fees. The state constitution prohibits state courts from seizing public dollars to satisfy judgments. 

The DA’s office did not respond to a request for comment on today’s order.

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...