Jason Williams, other moonlighting DAs faced legal questions over their side jobs | Courts

Two weeks after Orleans Parish Attorney Jason Williams was acquitted of federal tax evasion charges, he made headlines for another reason: He took a side job with the law firm. lawyers who successfully defended him in his criminal trial.

Williams may not end up joining Schonekas, Evans, McGoey and McEachin after all, his office said last week, after legal questions arose over potential conflicts of interest. Louisiana law prohibits DAs “or their legal partners” from handling criminal defense work, which means Williams’ arrival could force the firm Schonekas out of business.

But the news has prompted some of Williams’ critics to wonder why the elected full-time prosecutor in perhaps the state’s busiest courthouse would seek a side legal job.

It turns out that prosecutors are regularly in the moonlight. In fact, 30 of Louisiana’s 42 district attorneys have private practices, according to state reports.

Experts say the arrangements can present ethical issues if a district attorney’s firm is hired for a reason other than their qualifications. And they said DAs with parallel practices need to watch their workloads closely for conflicts of interest.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the nonprofit watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said problems could arise if a prosecutor’s office had to take on a client who was also facing charges in the prosecutor’s district. . It could also lead to an ethical gray area if relatives of the defendants were to hire the prosecutor’s law firm.

“Unless you really vet and interview your potential civilian client, there could be bombshells of conflict in your office,” Goyeneche said.

Williams said he was seeking legal advice on whether his association with the Schonekas company would create any issues. He told Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Chief Judge Robin Pittman that his employment with the company has been suspended for the time being.

“I think it is very important for the court to know that there is no formal contract between me and the law firm at this time, and I have not yet joined the firm or undertaken any work for him,” Williams wrote in a letter to Pittman on Aug. 17, two days after the company announced his hiring.

The announcement follows Williams’ decision last year to raise his own DA salary by $32,500, to $185,000.

But even with that raise, records show Williams’ salary is squarely within the mainstream of Louisiana district attorneys, who have some freedom to set their own salary.

According to their revelations, nine ADs receive more public salaries than Williams. The highest-paid DA in the state, Warren Montgomery of St. Tammany and Washington Parishes, earned $212,704 last year.

Split time

To be sure, few, if any, of the 30 district attorneys who maintain side gigs work in an environment quite like the Tulane and Broad courthouse.

Orleans Parish often sees more criminal trials than any other jurisdiction in the state, and the stakes are always high: The city’s murder rate is the highest in the state and is on track to be the highest of any city in the country this year.

Although Williams has yet to join the Schonekas firm, his office said the prosecutor has maintained his own four-person firm, Jason Roger Williams and Associates, and that hasn’t interfered with his work thus far.

They point to the 40 cases the prosecutor’s office has tried since the courts reopened in March after the pandemic lockdown, including four by Williams personally. Under Williams’ predecessor, Leon Cannizzaro, the office prosecuted 50 jury trials in each of the two years before the pandemic, said Mithun Kamath, Williams’ chief administrative officer.

It is unclear how much time, if any, Williams has devoted to his private business since becoming DA; a spokesperson did not respond to questions about it. The business made him more than $100,000 last year, according to his disclosure form.

“The commitment is clear and the priority is clear: working tirelessly to increase safety, deliver justice and ensure those who wreak havoc in our neighborhoods are held accountable,” said Kamath, who responded on behalf of Williams. “That goal has not changed and will never change.”

Questionable provisions

Such parallel arrangements have raised questions in other parishes.

Ten years ago, Washington-St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed sparked controversy when he had to recuse his office from prosecuting a truck driver charged with negligence in the deaths of two women. Reed also represented the victims’ family in a wrongful death lawsuit that resulted in a $2.4 million settlement, according to Reed’s comments at the time.

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Reed has also come under fire for pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal work done on behalf of a local hospital. Hospital administrators argued the contract fell within his official duties as DA, but the money was instead paid to his private law firm – although Reed often sent someone from the DA’s office to meetings instead.

He was later convicted and jailed on federal charges related to the scheme, as well as allegations that he misappropriated campaign funds for personal gain.

In Jefferson Parish, District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. has occasionally faced questions about the work his firm Connick & Connick does for the parish government.

The prominence of this undertaking contributed to Connick’s status as one of the oldest and most powerful elected officials in Jefferson Parish. He was first elected in 1996 and has rarely faced a serious re-election challenge.

His three-decade deal with Parish, which precedes his first term as DA, has proven lucrative: Connick’s business has received more than $3.3 million from Parish in the past three years alone. , according to the records.

In a recent interview, Connick said that he does not benefit from his company’s Jefferson Parish work because the company separates this income from Connick’s share from the company’s profits.

But as a 50% owner, Connick still shares in the profits of the business. His disclosures don’t require him to say exactly how much that is, though records show it’s at least $100,000 a year. His brother, Peter Connick, owns the other half of the business.

Of the state’s 42 ADs, eight, including Connick and Williams, report earning more than $100,000 a year from their side practices.

Paul Connick said he had no role in the operations of his company. “No court appearances, no pleadings, no depositions, no interrogations, nothing,” he said.

“I don’t even have an office in the space occupied by the company,” he added. “Heck, I don’t even have the key to the office.”

To ensure conflicts do not arise, Connick & Connick attorneys are required to ask all new clients if they are involved in a matter over which the Jefferson Parish Attorney’s Office has jurisdiction, said Connick.

And if an existing client is involved in a criminal matter, the firm has a policy of notifying the prosecutor’s office, so the office can decide whether a recusal is necessary, according to a memo shared by Connick.

A 1999 opinion from the state ethics committee said his firm’s work for Jefferson Parish poses no conflict with his position as a prosecutor.

“The People’s Advocates”

Such questions rarely arise in rural Louisiana, where criminal cases tend to be much lighter and many prosecutors have small side practices.

The arrangements also do not involve parallel legal work for public entities. Only two ADs in the state, aside from Connick, have reported such an arrangement, with receipts for those two individuals totaling just over $100,000 in the past three years combined, records show.

Rural ADs say there are practical reasons to keep their shingles outdoors.

On the one hand, it makes the work of DA more attractive. Many ADs take a pay cut when they leave full-time private practice, Winn Parish District Attorney Chris Nevils said, so it’s nice to get some of that money back.

“If you’re a good country lawyer, you give money,” Nevils said. “For sure.”

DAs in rural areas said they also keep parallel practices open because they are seen by many voters as “the people’s advocate.” LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said he often responds to calls or visits from people who need help with minor disputes.

“In a rural parish, a district attorney should be available to help people,” Walters said.

From their private practices last year, Reed and Nevils each said they received less than $5,000 in income.

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