City Council President Jason Williams, pictured on July 22, 2020, takes questions from reporters after qualifying to run for district attorney. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

The defense in the federal tax fraud case against City Councilman Jason Williams and a partner in his law firm on Thursday tried to cast doubt on the impartiality of an IRS agent involved in the investigation that led to their indictment, questioning the agent about her connections to Williams’ ex-wife Bridget Barthelemy — a witness against Williams in the case — and former Judge Keva Landrum, one of Williams’ opponents in the upcoming election for Orleans Parish district attorney. 

The Thursday hearing was part of an effort by Williams, and his co-defendant — law partner Nicole Burdett — to show that they are being selectively and vindictively prosecuted in an 11-cout federal tax-fraud indictment — and get the case thrown out. 

In July, Williams and Burdett pleaded not guilty to inflating business expenses between tax years 2013 and 2017 and failing to disclose cash payments of over $10,000. Prosecutors claim that they avoided paying over $200,000 in taxes. 

The pair have argued that their tax issues are the fault of their tax preparer, Henry Timothy, who they say falsely presented himself as a certified public accountant and filed inaccurate returns on their behalf. Prosecutors allege that Williams and Burdett pressured Timothy to decrease their tax burden. 

The hearing on Thursday wasn’t to argue the merits of the case, but whether or not the government singled out Williams for prosecution because of his position as a city councilmember and his publicly announced intent to run for DA

Michael Magner, who represents Burdett, attempted to show that special agent Kristie LeBeau Gregoire ran in the same social circles as both Barthelemy and Landrum — at one point pulling up a list of Gregorie’s Facebook friends who had alleged connections to the two — and that it may have influenced her decisions in pursuing the investigation into Williams’ taxes.

Gregoire said that she had gone to school with both Barthelemy and Landrum, but hadn’t seen either of them in over 5 years, and that they weren’t friends. 

When Magner asked her if she considered recusing herself due the connections she said she had not.

“I’m from New Orleans,” she said. “And as you know, being from a very small city, if I would recuse myself from every case where I knew someone, I could never work a case.”

She also said she wasn’t actually personal friends with any of the Facebook friends that Magner presented. 

“I couldn’t tell you how many friends I have on Facebook,” she said. “It’s something that I don’t go on very often and probably should just delete because it’s just not something that I’m ever on.”

Williams has argued since the tax investigation became public that it was a political hitjob orchestrated by the current DA, Leon Cannizzaro, who was presumed to be seeking a third term this year. Cannizzaro, however, ultimately decided not to run again, and has called the claims made by Williams “delusional.”  

The Thursday hearing was the second in which Williams and Burdett have made their case that they are being prosecuted selectively and vindictively due to Williams position as a city councilman and candidate for DA. The first took place earlier this month

At that hearing, a lawyer for Burdett also accused the government of intimidation tactics when an IRS agent went to the home of Burdett’s family members on the day of the hearing to deliver subpoenas. Feldman at the time called the conduct “unconscionable.” 

But he declined to dismiss the case, noting that Williams and Burdett face an “uphill battle” in proving selective and vindictive prosecution. But he did find that the evidence they had presented thus far granted them the opportunity to question witnesses — particularly the FBI investigators on the case — at an evidentiary hearing. 

Investigation

As attorneys for Williams and Burdett attempted to show that their clients had been singled out by investigators, the hearing on Thursday shed some new light on exactly how the investigation into Williams’ tax issues began, according to the federal agents involved.

In 2018, IRS agents Lori Marable and Jennifer Lopez-Martinez — both of whom testified at the hearing — approached Williams in relation to an investigation into his tax preparer, Henry Timothy.  Williams himself was not the subject of a tax investigation at that point. But Williams failed to show up for the meeting, reportedly leaving them waiting for hours. Neither agent claimed to be upset about being stood up, noting that people often don’t want to meet with IRS agents, and regularly fail to show up for interviews.

The agents said they only learned after that planned meeting that Williams was a member of the City Council, and Lopez-Ramirez said she felt she had an obligation to inform her supervisor, Gregoire, that they had gone to interview a public official. She also told Gregoire that Marabel had described Williams’ tax returns as “egregious.” Lopez-Ramirez said she had not seen the returns herself.

Gregoire, according to her testimony on Thursday, then contacted IRS agent Tim Moore, who works on public corruption cases, and told him to “take a look into Mr. Williams’ tax matters.” This occured in early November 2018, about two weeks after Williams had announced that he was running for district attorney.

Williams also happened to be the subject of another FBI investigation at the time — which is ongoing — spanning back to 2016, and agent Moore happened to work in the same office at an adjoining cubicle to the agent working on that case. Attorneys for Williams and Burdett attempted to make the case that Moore was aware of the FBI investigation, and that it was going cold, when he began looking into Williams’ taxes.

“Isn’t it true that this pursuit of this tax investigation of Mr. Williams was just pretextual to be able to reopen a cold, stale, investigation?” Magner asked Gregoire.

“We were not even aware that Mr. Williams was being investigated by FBI when I gave Mr. Moore the information,” she responded. But she also said that at some point Moore had mentioned the FBI investigation —which she recalled had something to do with “kickbacks” — and had said that “they didn’t have anything.”  

Later in the hearing, agent Moore denied having made a comment about the investigation going cold, and that his tax investigation was independent from any other FBI investigations taking place. He said that once he began looking into Williams taxes he found the irregularities that eventually resulted in the indictment.

It was unclear if the hearing would continue on Friday. The defense still has one final witness — an FBI agent reportedly involved in the first investigation of Williams — but by Thursday evening, they said had not yet made a determination whether or not he was necessary. 

Nicholas 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...