By Matt Sledge | NOLA.com | November 10, 2021
For years as a member of the New Orleans City Council, Jason Williams fought against budget increases requested by former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, while questioning his leadership and financial stewardship.
Ten months after Williams became district attorney, the tables were turned as he asked the council for $2.2 million more in funding than what the city has proposed.
Williams’ appearance at a budget hearing Wednesday was a homecoming of sorts for the former at-large council member. But it also included a verbal skirmish against City Councilmember Jay Banks, who questioned why Williams had changed his tune about office funding. Banks is up for re-election Saturday for his District B seat against three opponents, including one endorsed by Williams.
Williams wants $9.3 million for the District Attorney’s Office from the city for his 2022 budget, compared to the $7 million allocation proposed by Mayor Latoya Cantrell, which is nearly the same as the city contribution before the pandemic scrambled its finances. He says the extra money will go toward hiring additional prosecutors and investigators, paying settlements for wrongful convictions and other expenses.
Either amount would represent a significant step up from the $5.4 million in city funding for the District Attorney’s Office that Williams approved in his waning days on the City Council, before his Jan. 11 inauguration as DA. Back then, the pandemic was forcing the city into austerity mode, and Williams was castigating Cannizzaro — who declined to seek re-election — on the campaign trail.
As the city’s budget outlook brightened, Williams’ office received an extra $1.4 million for 2021.
Williams also receives money from the state and federal grants. Overall, he requested a total $15.8 million in revenue next year.
Williams says the extra funds will go toward an office that has undergone a transformation. Williams said he’s helped throw out 48 wrongful convictions, stopped using Louisiana’s harsh habitual offender statute and refused more cases that shouldn’t go to trial.
Williams’ biggest ask is for $1.2 million in confirmed and anticipated settlements for civil lawsuits, including one involving fake subpoenas and several alleging wrongful convictions.
“There are remaining civil lawsuits and liabilities that still pose a constant threat,” Williams said.
Williams is also asking for $419,000 to hire six more prosecutors for his trials division, which has been vexed by turnover. As of earlier this month, the division had 28 assistant district attorneys.
Banks was skeptical of Williams’ shift. “When you were sitting here, you told your predecessor that there was a tremendous amount of fat to be trimmed,” he said. “You’re asking for more money now. So does that fat no longer exist?”
Williams said that he has gotten rid of overpaid staffers employed by Cannizzaro and boosted the pay of crucial lower-level employees.
“When we got here, we found bloated middle management, people making close to $200,000 a year who were not setting foot in court,” Williams said. “We found an investigations division that was almost larger than the trials division, but was not investigating or closing any cold cases.”
The back-and-forth went beyond budget lines. Banks questioned Williams over his transfer of juveniles charged with homicide to adult court, which went against Williams’ campaign pledge and has angered progressives. He also asked whether a project to tackle cold-case homicides was better left to police and brought up a Metropolitan Crime Commission report alleging that Williams has dismissed too many cases.
“I’m trying to understand,” Banks said. “When you dismiss a case, does it mean that the police were negligent?”
Williams said his decisions weren’t a knock on cops. Rather, it could indicate that there wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction, a suspect was in the “throes of addiction” when they committed a crime and was a good candidate for diversion, or a victim in a case didn’t want to go forward with prosecution, he said.
From other corners, Williams got a warmer welcome. City Council President Helena Moreno, a political ally, said she looked forward to discussing with Williams and other legal system leaders a comprehensive program to tackle domestic violence.
Williams’ budget request includes $300,000 for a specialized human trafficking and domestic violence unit, which would include two investigators, two prosecutors, counselors and housing for survivors, according to his budget presentation.