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

More than two years after he was federally indicted on charges of tax fraud, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams is set to go to trial on Monday, the outcome of which has the potential to upend the criminal legal system in New Orleans. 

If convicted on any of the 10 counts he is facing, Williams’ law license will likely be suspended,  forcing him to step down as DA, and he could face fines and prison time. The counts carry maximum sentences of three to five years, totalling 40 years. However, it is almost certain that any sentence he receives if convicted would be significantly lower. 

The trial — which has been repeatedly delayed due to COVID-19 and appeals of pre-trial decisions  — is scheduled to last two weeks. 

Williams, along with his former law partner Nicole Burdett, were indicted in June of 2020 on 11 counts of inflating business expenses and failing to report cash payments, which allegedly allowed them to avoid paying more than $200,000 in taxes between 2013 and 2017. 

At the time, Williams was the New Orleans City Council president, but he had already announced his intention to run for the office against incumbent Leon Cannizzaro. (He had previously run for DA in 2008, placing third and failing to make the runoff. Cannizzaro would go on to win his first term that November.) As a member of the council, Williams had long established himself as a fierce critic of Cannizzaro’s aggressive prosecutorial tactics

The indictment came down weeks before the qualifying period for the 2020 DA election. 

Williams claimed that the indictment was a political hit job orchestrated by former Cannizzaro and political consultant Billy Schultz, and that the timing of the federal investigation coincided with his announcement that he would seek the office. Williams announced that he would seek the office in October 2018. The investigation into his taxes began a few months later. But federal prosecutors have said investigators had opened an earlier inquiry into Williams in 2016

Cannizzaro, who later decided not to seek reelection in 2020, called the allegation “delusional.” (Cannizzaro is now in charge of Attorney General Jeff Landry’s criminal division, and has been subpoenaed by the government to testify at Williams’ trial.) 

On December 5, 2020, with the indictment still hanging over his head, Williams won the run-off election for DA against Keva Landrum, and took office in January of 2021. 

In order to prove Williams and Burdett are guilty, prosecutors must show that they acted “willfully” — meaning a “voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.” 

Williams and Burdett argue that they are the victims of their tax preparer Henry Timothy, who they say falsely claimed he was a Certified Public Accountant, and inflated deductions without their knowledge. Federal prosecutors with the U.S. Attorneys Office for the Western District of Louisiana acknowledged that Timothy has filed false returns for other clients, and that the investigation into Williams actually stemmed from an investigation into Timothy. But federal prosecutors say that Williams and Burdett pressured Timothy to decrease their tax burden and were aware that the filings were fraudulent. 

Timothy was separately charged with tax fraud in a bill of information, which generally indicates that a defendant intends to plead guilty and cooperate with federal authorities. Indeed, Timothy pleaded guilty to a single count last year and has been subpoenaed to appear as a witness in Williams’ trial. 

Williams’ ex-wife Bridget Barthelemy was recently charged with a misdemeanor tax crime, also in a bill of information. She has also been subpoenaed for the Williams trial. 

Williams attempted to have the charges tossed, alleging that prosecutors vindictively targeted him due to the fact that he was a Black man running for DA on a progressive platform, which was inherently threatening to law enforcement. His lawyers argued that despite the fact that Timothy had inflated deductions for many of his other clients, Williams and Burdett were the only ones to face criminal prosecution. 

But federal prosecutors pointed to Williams’ prior tax issues and the fact that he was an attorney himself and therefore savvier about the law than many of Timothy’s other clients to justify a criminal investigation in his case.  After multiple evidentiary hearings, District Judge Martin Feldman threw out Williams and Burdett’s claims that they were being persecuted unfairly, and allowed the case to move forward.

But Feldman also barred the prosecution from bringing up William’s history of tax problems — though he said they could present evidence on Williams’ “lifestyle” and spending habits. 

In January, Feldman died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and the case was transferred to Judge Lance Africk. 

In June, prosecutors dropped one count against Williams and Burdett related to a supposed unreported $10,500 cash payment.  According to a government filing, lawyers for Williams and Burdett just recently turned over evidence that Williams’ law firm had “incorrectly coded the transaction,” and the money was actually withheld attorneys fees related to a civil settlement — not a cash payment. 

Prosecutors say the evidence — a “settlement disbursements letter” from Williams’ firm to a client — should have been turned over to them years ago, in response to a grand jury subpoena, prior to the indictment even being brought. They say that they never would have included that count in the indictment had they seen it. 

But lawyers for Williams want to use the dropped count to show that the government has engaged in a practice of “sloppy investigation,” according to government filings, which prosecutors object to. 

“This does not make sense,” prosecutors wrote earlier this month, asking that any evidence related to the dropped count be excluded from trial. “How can the Government be accused of conducting a ‘sloppy investigation’ when the defendants did not timely disclose the relevant evidence?”

Africk has said he will wait until trial to determine if the evidence is pertinent. 

Should Williams be forced to step down, state law dictates that his first assistant, Ned McGowan, will take over pending a special election that would be called by Governor John Bel Edwards. McGowan worked as a prosecutor in Plaquemines Parish prior to joining Williams’ office. 

Even some of Williams’ frequent critics worry what could happen if he’s convicted, and the office is forced to change hands.

“That’s going to further destabilize that office — that type of upheaval,” said Rafael Goyeneche of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, who has often been critical of Williams’ initial approach to the job. “You lose a leader that impacts any type of organization. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

Williams has backed off on some of the campaign pledges that Goyeneche — a former Orleans Parish prosecutor — said he found objectionable, such as refusing to charge juveniles as adults, and not arguing for higher bonds. And Goyeneche said he was hopeful that would continue during the rest of his term if his career survives the trial. 

“If he prevails in this case, in the months and years ahead he’s going to further moderate his position, and continue to evolve in balancing between some of his campaign policies and the need for protecting the public from some of the violent and repeat offenders,” Goyeneche said. 

Williams was not available for an interview for this story, and his attorney, Billy Gibbens, did not return a call from The Lens. 

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...