New Orleans City Council president Jason Williams after qualifying to run for district attorney. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

An attorney defending New Orleans City Council President Jason Williams went before a federal judge on Wednesday to argue that an 11-count federal tax fraud indictment against Williams, a criminal defense lawyer, and Nicole Burdett, a partner in his law practice, should be dropped.

Williams’ lawyer, Billy Gibbens, accused federal prosecutors of waging a political battle to try to derail the councilman’s run for Orleans Parish District Attorney in the upcoming November election, a charge prosecutors denied. He also questioned the racial makeup of the grand jury that handed down the indictment in June, when grand juries were generally not being seated due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The hearing took place via video conference in front of U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, and was related to a motion that Williams and Burdett filed in July seeking to dismiss the case and demanding information about the grand jury, which is usually confidential. 

Williams and Burdett have both pleaded not guilty to the indictment, which accuses them of inflating the law firm’s business expenses to reduce its tax liability by over $200,000 and failing to report cash payments of over $10,000. 

Williams — both in the press and in legal filings — has suggested that the charges are politically orchestrated, and that current Orleans Parish District Attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, is behind them. Williams has introduced as evidence text messages from Cannizzaro political consultant Billy Schultz, saying that if Williams decided to run for DA he was “PREPARED FOR WAR!!!!!!!!!!!” followed by several emojis —including a bomb, a green water pistol, a lightning bolt, and a red thumb tack.

Cannizzaro, whose office prosecutes state, not federal crimes, has denied the accusation, at one point calling Williams “delusional.” 

During the investigation leading to the charges, and for a period after the indictment, it was widely assumed that Cannizzaro would seek a third term, and that Williams would be the frontrunner to unseat him. Cannizzaro, however, announced in the final hours of the election qualifying period that he will retire.

The field for DA now consists of Willams and three former judges — Keva Landrum, Arthur Hunter, and Morris Reed. 

A tentative trial date is currently set for September 14 despite the fact that federal trials are suspended until October 5 due to the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, Feldman said it was unlikely that a trial could happen any time in the near future — and likely not until after the November 3 election.

“The September trial date was the result of the Speedy Trial Act, but given the pending issues before me, not just now but continuing after this, I think everybody has to recognize that this case is not going to come up for trial for a while, and not probably not until after the election,” Feldman said. 

Attorneys for Williams and Burdett said that by convening a grand jury during the pandemic and seeking an indictment, prosecutors ensured that their clients would not be given a speedy trial, and  that the timing — just weeks before qualifying for the DAs race — was suspect. 

They also asked prosecutors to hand over information about the racial makeup of the grand jury, arguing that Black jurors might have been more likely to seek to be excused from grand jury service due to concerns about the disease — from which Black people have died and been hospitalized at a disproportionate rate — especially at a time when Governor John Bel Edwards told people who are at higher risk to stay at home. Williams is Black. Burdett is white.

Williams and Burdett were both present on the video call, and sat silently as the arguments took place. 

“Our motion is based on a very unusual set of circumstances,” Gibbens told the judge on Wednesday.  “We have a grand jury summoned in the middle of a pandemic to indict a tax case, we’ve got a potential exclusion of a class of individuals — African Americans — from that grand jury based on the disproportionate impact of that pandemic. We’ve got an African American defendant who also happens to be an elected official and a candidate for a November 3 election. We have political overtones in the initiation of this investigation, an indictment returned less than a month before qualifying for the election, and a likely inability to bring the case to trial before that election.”

Prosecutors said they needed to bring the charges when they did because time limitations on two of the felony counts were running out. They also denied that any political maneuvering was behind the indictment.

“I want to be real clear, we have no connection to Leon Cannizzaro, Mr. Schultz. And none of them have any influence whatsoever in the bringing of this pending case before the court,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Uebinger, a prosecutor in the case.

Uebinger also pointed out that Cannizzaro will no longer be running for District Attorney — to which Judge Feldman responded that he did not need “a lecture on New Orleans politics.” 

But much of the argument on Wednesday centered on the questions about the grand jury and whether it was demographically representative. 

“That’s the ultimate concern here, is whether or not this case was indicted with a grand jury that excluded, due to the coronavirus, a protected class,” said Gibbens. 

But prosecutors argued that during other difficult circumstances, such as after Hurricane Katrina, grand juries continued to be empaneled despite the possibility that the demographics of those juries may have been affected. 

Ultimately, they said, the case was not about the timing of the indictment, but the underlying crimes that Williams was alleged to have committed. 

“I want the court to understand that this is not about political influence, it’s not about pandemics, it’s about someone who committed a bunch of crimes over the course of five years,” Uebinger said on Wednesday. “Jason Williams is a sophisticated attorney, he knows what his tax obligation is. The man had thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars of expenses he’s not entitled to. That’s what this case is about. That’s where the government begins, and that’s where the government ends.”

The judge pushed back on her assessment of the case. 

“There are certainly instances in which well known public figures, and maybe even politicians, have had tax issues that have been dealt with on the civil side as opposed to the criminal side,” Feldman said. “So I’m not so sure your last few comments were, frankly, even appropriate.” 

He said he would issue a decision on the motion “just as soon as possible.” 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...