New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams, pictured at a special council meeting on Jan. 29, 2020. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

New Orleans City Council President and declared candidate for Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams appeared via video conference in federal court on Friday and pleaded not guilty to charges of tax fraud.

Williams was indicted last month. He is accused of inflating business expenses between 2014 and 2018 to avoid paying nearly $200,000 in taxes and failing to report several cash payments of over $10,000, and was indicted on 11 felony counts.

The hearing took place in front of federal Eastern District of Louisiana Magistrate Judge Karen Wells Roby.

The federal indictment alleges that Williams and another attorney at his law firm, Nicole Burdett, instructed a tax preparer to file false information on tax forms in order to reduce Williams’ tax liability. 

Of the 11 felony counts, one is for conspiracy to defraud the United States, five are for the filing of fraudulent tax returns, and five are for failing to file necessary tax forms on payments over $10,000.  

Williams and Burdett appeared together with their lawyers on the video call, from the office of Burdett’s attorney, Michael Magner. Williams is represented by Billy Gibbens. 

Burdett also pleaded not guilty to the charges. 

Williams was given a $50,000 unsecured bond, and Burdett was released on her own recognizance.

Prosecutors for the government also requested that as a condition of bond, Williams and Burdett be prohibited from contacting government witnesses — specifically, Henry Timothy, who was Williams and Burdett’s tax preparer, and Williams’ ex-wife.

“We have already encountered some issues regarding Mr. Timothy,” said Kelly Uebinger, one of the prosecutors, “and the government would like to prevent further issues down the line.” 

Attorneys for both Williams and Burdett said that their clients had no reason to be in touch with either witness, although the attorneys themselves said they may be in touch in relation to a civil suit Williams and Burdett filed against Timothy.

That suit, which was filed prior to the indictment, gives the clearest picture of Williams and Burdett’s defense against the charges. It alleges that Timothy misrepresented himself as a certified public accountant, and accuses him of “fraudulent inducement, negligence/accounting malpractice, breach of contract, and unfair trade practices.” 

Williams and Burdett claim in the suit that between 2012 and 2018 they provided Timothy with accurate QuickBooks information for Williams’ law firm, and Timothy prepared the tax returns and made determinations about what deductions to take before filing. They say Timothy did not discuss with them the contents of the returns — other than to say they were ready — before filing them. 

According to the suit, Williams and Burdett learned in 2018 that Timothy was not in fact a CPA, and around that time Williams also learned Timothy was under investigation by the IRS for fraud. In early 2020 they discovered that he had “committed errors” on their returns.

Williams and Burdett claim that when they found out about the errors, they interviewed Timothy regarding his preparation of their taxes. They say that Timothy admitted to them that he was the one who made determinations about deductions, which he thought were appropriate, and that he was not pressured by William or Burdett to inflate those deductions. 

But, according to the suit, when Timothy learned that he was under investigation by the IRS, he “changed his story” and told the IRS that Williams and Burdett had pressured him into lowering their tax liability. 

“As a result of this false accusation,” the complaint reads, “the IRS has wrongly focused its tax investigation on the named Plaintiffs instead of Timothy.”

An attorney for Timothy could not be reached for comment. 

Williams has also been vocal in his opinion that his indictment was the result of an orchestrated political attack by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, and Williams’ potential election opponent, Leon Cannizzaro. In an email sent out by his campaign for DA, Williams said that Cannizzaro was using his “power and influence” to scare him away from entering into the race. 

Cannizzaro, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this story, but has called Williams accusations “delusional,” and said that he has no influence over federal investigations. 

Williams, a criminal defense attorney, has positioned himself as a criminal justice reformer and been a regular critic of Cannizzaro’s use of fake subpoenas and his practice of jailing victims. He has said he still plans on running for Cannizzaro’s current office.

At the hearing on Friday, a preliminary trial date was set for September 14 — less than two months before the Nov. 3 election — in front of U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman.

Following the arraignment, Gibbens, Williams’ attorney, released a statement.

“Jason is innocent of these charges, and we are excited to take the first step in ensuring justice in this case,” the statement read. “Now that we have had more time to evaluate the government’s allegations, we are convinced that they are meritless and we are confident that we will prevail.”