Orleans Parish DA Jason Williams and his wife Elizabeth Marcell Williams approach the Hale Boggs federal courthouse on Monday, July 18, 2022, the first day of his trial on federal tax fraud charges. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

A federal jury on Thursday acquitted Orleans Parish District Attorney on 10 counts of tax fraud and failing to file forms related to large cash payments, charges that Williams said were politically motivated and that threatened to end his tenure as DA less than two years into his six-year term. 

Nicole Burdett, Williams’ former law partner in his private firm and his co-defendant, was also acquitted with Williams on those 10 counts. 

However, Burdett was also charged in a separate indictment with tax fraud related to her own income taxes, a case that was tried jointly with the Williams case. On Thursday, the jury found her guilty on all four of those counts. 

A conviction for Williams on any of the counts could have been a major blow to the reform-minded coalition that supported him in the 2020 election for DA, when he was largely seen as the most progressive candidate in the race. And despite going back on some campaign promises, he has represented a break from past prosecutors by developing a robust civil rights division, declining to prosecute most simple drug possession cases, and pledging not to use the state’s habitual offender law.  

Following the verdict, Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson, who herself was recently elected on a progressive platform, issued a statement celebrating the acquittal, calling Williams a “leader and a partner” in the fight to reform the criminal legal system.

During a week-long trial, federal prosecutors with the Western District of Louisiana attempted to make their case that Williams and Burdett knowingly wrote off hundreds of thousands dollars in personal expenses as business deductions over a 5-year period to reduce Williams’ tax burden by more than $200,000. After a decade of tax problems, they argued, Williams sought out Henry Timothy, a tax preparer who he knew would file fraudulent returns, and then pressured him to take the illegal deductions.

But defense attorneys for Williams and Burdett said the government narrative was a “fantasy,” and that in their zealous pursuit of a public official, they declined to conduct a thorough investigation or cast nearly enough scrutiny on Timothy — prosecutors’ key witness in the case — who by the government’s own admission has lied repeatedly to federal investigators, and is currently awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to cheating on his own taxes. 

Since his indictment in June 2020, Williams has cast the charges against him as a political hit job. Specifically, he claimed the investigation had been orchestrated by political rival, and his predecessor as DA, Leon Cannizzaro. At the time, Williams was New Orleans City Council president, but he had announced his intention to run for DA over a year earlier, and qualifying for that election was just weeks away when a federal grand jury handed down the indictment. 

Cannizzaro called the allegations “delusional.”

In 2020, Williams unsuccessfully sought to have the case thrown out for selective and vindictive prosecution, arguing that the timing of the case and the way the investigation unfolded suggested that he was being targeted because he was “an African American public official and announced candidate for New Orleans district attorney,” and his progressive platform was threatening to the law enforcement establishment. 

His lawyers pointed out that several of the counts against him and Burdett  — for failing to file a special tax form to report large cash payments — had not been brought against anyone else in the Eastern District of Louisiana in the last 50 years at least. 

But when the attempt to have the charges dismissed failed, his attorneys agreed that they would not make the same arguments explicitly during trial. Instead, they focused on undermining Timothy’s credibility and questioning the limited scope of the federal investigation. 

‘The evidence was not there’

Prosecutors needed to show that Williams and Burdett willfully filed fraudulent returns, and on the stand, Timothy, their former tax preparer, said that the pair pressured him to take the inflated deductions.

But he also admitted under questioning from defense attorneys that he had lied several times to federal investigators, and continued cheating on his own taxes even after Williams and Burdett stopped using him to file their returns. And he said that by testifying for the prosecution he was looking for leniency in his own case — though he maintained that he was telling the truth. 

Defense attorneys for Williams and Burdett also said that prosecutors didn’t do enough to investigate Timothy’s claims by interviewing his other clients or seizing his computer. 

Williams and Burdett had lined up several witnesses for their defense. But when prosecutors rested their case on Tuesday morning, the defense team determined that the government had not proven its case and rested without calling any witnesses or presenting any new evidence. The jury retired to deliberate on Tuesday afternoon.

Williams’ ultimate acquittal is a high-profile blow to Western District prosecutors, who took the case after the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District in New Orleans recused itself. Not guilty verdicts are exceedingly rare in federal court. 

During fiscal year 2021, of the over 45,000 completed criminal cases in federal courts across the country, there were just 128 acquitals, according to statistics compiled by the Executive Office for United States Attorneys. In Louisiana during the same time period there was just a single acquittal out of 407 cases that were resolved. That acquittal came out of the Western District. 

On the steps of the courthouse, U.S. Attorney for the Western District Brandon Bonaparte Brown told reporters that while the office may disagree with the jury’s decision, he respected the work that they did in the case. He said they wouldn’t make any additional comments prior to Burdett’s sentencing, which is scheduled for November. 

Following the verdict, Williams’ defense attorneys Lisa Wayne and Billy Gibbens told reporters that the prosecution’s case was too weak for trial. 

“The evidence was not there,” Wayne said. “They should have never been indicted, frankly. … Billy and I thought this should have never been in the courthouse.”

And they said that the charges against Burdett would have never even been brought if prosecutors weren’t so eager to take down Williams. 

“The reality is Nicole would have never been under the radar if it wasn’t for the fact that they wanted Jason, and they were willing to take collateral damage to anybody else that was associated with him,” said Wayne.

Mike Magner, an attorney for Burdett, told a reporter with WWL-TV that the government had previously offered Burdett immunity if she would falsely testify against Williams, but she declined. 

Williams was also offered a deal to plead guilty to just one of the counts charged, but declined.

In addition to Burdett, several other people associated with Williams have been charged with tax fraud. Former attorneys with his private firm, Greg Sauzer and Robert Hjortsberg, along with his ex-wife, Bridget Barthelemy have all pleaded guilty in their own cases. Sauzer and Barthelemy both testified at trial for the prosecution.

Williams is not the first Orleans Parish DA to get the best of federal prosecutors. In 1990, after a trial that lasted six weeks, DA Harry Connick was found not guilty of aiding and abetting an illegal gambling operation. Like Williams, Connick maintained that the charges against him were politically motivated, and as the jury was deliberating in his case, he registered for re-election.

This story has been updated to include additional details from the trial and comments from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Williams’ defense attorneys.

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...