New Orleans district attorney acquitted in federal tax case

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams was acquitted by a federal jury Thursday in a tax fraud case, lifting a legal cloud that had hung over him during his campaign to become the city’s top prosecutor and his first 19 months in office.

Williams and an associate, Nicole Burdett, who worked in his law practice, had been accused in an indictment of conspiring to cheat on Williams’ taxes during a five-year period ending in 2017. Williams, a former City Council member, contended that the charges were politically motivated.

The jury acquitted both on 10 counts involving Williams’ taxes, but convicted Burdett on four separate counts involving her own taxes.

The verdicts came after roughly 16 hours of deliberations spread over three days. Williams did not address reporters after the trial. Prosecutors declined comment.

“New Orleans should be relieved that their DA can get back to doing what he needs to do for this city,” Lisa Wayne, one of Williams’ defense attorneys, said outside the courthouse.

Prosecutors rested their case Tuesday morning, a week after the trial began. Prosecution witnesses included the tax preparer, Henry Timothy, who was cooperating with prosecutors after pleading guilty to a single tax charge, as well as a forensic accountant and federal investigators.

The defense rested Tuesday morning as well, without calling Williams or any other witnesses. There was no need because the prosecution case was so weak, Williams defense attorneys Billy Gibbens and Wayne said after the trial.

Defense attorneys portrayed Timothy as a fraud and Williams and Burdett as his victims. They attacked Timothy’s credibility, and questioned why others whose taxes were prepared by Timothy weren’t criminally prosecuted.

Gibbens said Williams was “heartbroken” at Burdett’s conviction. “She shouldn’t have been caught up in this,” Gibbens said.

Burdett’s attorneys, Michael Magner and Avery Pardee, said their client was “collateral damage” in a politically motivated prosecution. “The government offered Nicole immunity in return for false testimony against Jason Williams. She refused and was charged,” Magner and Pardee said in an email. “We will pursue all lawful remedies on behalf of Nicole with the trial judge and on appeal if necessary.”

Williams was a criminal defense lawyer, president of the New Orleans City Council and a fierce critic of then-incumbent District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro when he signed up to run for Cannizzaro’s post in 2020, promising an end to Cannizzaro’s hardball tactics, including sometimes threatening victims with jail time if they didn’t testify in investigations.

Despite the federal indictment that had been handed up earlier in the year, Williams went on to win the race, taking office in January 2021.

He has won praise from many of the criminal justice reform advocates who helped elect him for efforts to review cases for possible wrongful convictions, and for taking a new look at felony convictions based on 10-2 or 11-1 verdicts that are no longer legal in state law. But pandemic-era crime in the city has increased significantly and he’s been criticized for measures including a prohibition on using habitual offender charges to get longer sentences for people convicted.

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