Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams (left) arrives at the federal courthouse ahead of his trial for tax fraud. July 18, 2022.(Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

On the opening day of his long-awaited trial on federal tax fraud charges, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams confirmed that he rejected a plea deal offer from prosecutors that would have allowed him to avoid a jury trial — and likely cut the potential penalties he could face if convicted — by pleading guilty to just one of the 10 counts he is facing. 

The revelation came prior to jury selection on Monday, when U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is presiding over the case, asked the parties about any offers that had been made.

The most serious charges in the case carry maximum prison sentences of five years, while the others carry three-year maximum sentences, for a total of 40 years. Williams, however, will likely face significantly less time even if convicted on all counts. The Times-Picayune reported that federal sentencing guidelines call for up to 27 months in prison, based on the tax loss.

The same deal was offered to his co-defendant and former law partner, Nicole Burdett, who also rejected it, defense attorneys confirmed. Instead, the two have opted to take their case to trial — which began on Monday with jury selection.

Federal prosecutors with the US Attorney’s Office for Louisiana’s Western District have charged Williams and Burdett of inflating the firm’s business expenses and failing to report cash payments in order to falsely reduce their tax burden by $200,000 over a five-year period.

The deal still would have meant a felony conviction — and likely forced Williams out as DA.

Williams has maintained his innocence since the indictment came down in June 2020 — weeks before he qualified to run for DA in the fall 2020 election. He has framed the federal tax investigation as a political hit job that was closely timed with his late 2018 announcement that he would run for the office. Specifically, Williams pointed to his political rival and predecessor, former DA Leon Cannizzarro, and political consultant Billy Schulz as working to orchestrate the probe. Cannizzaro has denied the allegation, calling Williams “delusional.”

The trial is expected to last between 2 or 3 weeks, but at the end of the day on Monday a jury had yet to be picked. 

Following the brief exchange regarding the rejected plea deals, 94 prospective jurors were called into the courtroom from the thirteen parishes the Eastern District of Louisiana encompasses: Assumption, Jefferson, Lafourche, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Terrebonne, and Washington.

Press and other spectators were removed to an overflow courtroom across the hall where they were able to observe the proceedings via videofeed. 

One by one, the prospective jurors were asked to state their parish of residence, level of education, occupation, marital status, and the occupation of their spouse.  Nearly 20 of the jurors were from Orleans parish, and a similar number were from Jefferson. Around a dozen were from St. Tammany. 

They were then questioned about a variety of issues related to whether or not they had been victims of a crime, convicted of a crime, if they knew any attorneys or defendants on the case, and how they prepared their taxes. 

Williams and Burdett argue that they are the victims of their tax preparer, Henry Timothy, who they say falsely represented himself as a certified public accountant and has a history of inflating his clients deductions. Indeed, the investigation into Williams stemmed from an investigation in Timothy, who himself pleaded guilty to one count of tax fraud. 

Timothy is among the witnesses the government is likely to call. On Monday, prosecutors also said they would be calling Williams’ ex-wife, Bridget Barthelmy, and Robert Hjortsberg, a former employee in Williams law firm — both of whom have also pleaded guilty to tax crimes. They did not mention Cannizzaro — despite having previously issued him a witness subpoena. 

Billy Gibbens, attorney for Williams, said he would call Harold Asher, an expert in taxes and accounting. Asher testified earlier in the case during an evidentiary hearing where he said that after analyzing “thousands” of tax returns from other clients of Henry Timothy, he found that Williams was not an outlier — yet only he and his law partner were being criminally prosecuted. 

Prosecutors have argued that they were justified in opening an investigation into Williams, due to the fact that he is a lawyer himself and has had prior tax issues. 

After a brief lunch break, jurors began being called in one by one for private interviews with Judge Africk and the attorneys on each side. That went on until around 6 p.m., when they were finally dismissed. 

The selection process will continue tomorrow at 8:30 am.

This story was updated after the conclusion of the first day of Williams’ trial.

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...