By Joseph Cranney & Blake Peterson | NOLA.com | September 11, 2022
Two weeks after Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams was acquitted on federal tax evasion charges, he made headlines for another reason: He accepted a side job with the law firm that successfully defended him in his criminal trial.
Williams might not end up joining Schonekas, Evans, McGoey and McEachin after all, his office said last week, after legal questions arose about potential conflicts of interest. Louisiana law forbids DAs “or their law partners” to handle criminal defense work, meaning that Williams’ arrival could force the Schonekas firm to give up a chunk of its business.
But the news prompted some of Williams’ critics to question why the full-time elected prosecutor in perhaps the state’s busiest courthouse would seek a side legal job at all.
Turns out, DAs regularly moonlight. In fact, 30 of Louisiana’s 42 district attorneys maintain a private practice, state reports show.
Experts say the arrangements can present ethical questions if a district attorney’s firm is hired for any reason other than its qualifications. And they said DAs with side practices must closely monitor their caseloads for conflicts of interest.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the nonprofit watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said problems can arise if a DA’s firm were to take on a client who also faced charges in the prosecutor’s district. It could also lead to an ethical gray area if relatives of criminal defendants were to hire the DA’s law firm.
“Unless you really drill down and interview your prospective civil client, there could be conflict bombs in your office,” Goyeneche said.
Williams said he is seeking legal guidance on whether his association with the Schonekas firm would create problems. He told Robin Pittman, chief judge for Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, that his employment with the firm has been put on hold for now.
“I believe it is very important for the court to know that there are no formal contracts between me and the law firm at this time, and I have not yet joined the firm or undertaken any work for it,” Williams wrote in a letter to Pittman on Aug. 17, two days after the firm announced his hiring.
The announcement followed Williams’ decision last year to raise his own DA salary by $32,500, to $185,000.
But even with that pay bump, records show Williams’ salary is squarely in the mainstream of Louisiana district attorneys, who have some freedom to set their own pay.
Nine DAs take home more public pay than Williams, according to their disclosures. The highest-paid DA in the state, Warren Montgomery of St. Tammany and Washington parishes, made $212,704 last year.
To be sure, few, if any, of the 30 district attorneys who maintain side gigs work in an environment quite like the courthouse at Tulane and Broad.
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 tops in the state, and is on pace to be the highest of any city in country this year.
While Williams has yet to join the Schonekas firm, his office said the DA has maintained his own four-person firm, Jason Roger Williams and Associates, and that hasn’t gotten in the way of his work so far.
They point to the 40 cases the DA’s office has tried since the courts reopened in March from 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’s unclear how much time, if any, Williams has devoted to his private firm since becoming DA; a spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about that. The firm brought 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 Williams’ behalf. “This focus has not shifted and will never shift.”
Such side arrangements have raised questions in other parishes.
A decade ago, Washington-St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed stirred controversy when he had to recuse his office from the criminal prosecution of a truck driver who was booked with negligence in the death of two women. Reed was also representing the family of the victims in a wrongful death claim that resulted in a $2.4 million settlement, according to Reed’s comments at the time.
Reed also came under fire for pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal work done on behalf of a local hospital. Hospital administrators contended the contract fell under 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 in his stead.
He was later convicted and imprisoned on federal charges related to that scheme, along with allegations that he siphoned campaign funds for personal use.
In Jefferson Parish, District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. has occasionally faced questions for the work that his Connick & Connick firm performs for the parish government.
That firm’s prominence has contributed to Connick’s status as one of Jefferson Parish’s longest serving and most powerful elected officials. He was first elected in 1996 and has rarely faced a serious challenge to his re-election.
His three-decade arrangement with the parish, which predates his first term as DA, has proven lucrative: Connick’s firm has received more than $3.3 million from the parish in just the past three years, records show.
In a recent interview, Connick said he doesn’t benefit from his firm’s Jefferson Parish work because the firm keeps that income separate from Connick’s portion of the firm’s earnings.
But as 50% owner, Connick still shares in the firm’s profits. His disclosures do not require him to say exactly how much that amounts to, though the records show it’s at least $100,000 a year. His brother, Peter Connick, owns the other half of the firm.
Among the state’s 42 DAs, eight, including Connick and Williams, report making more than $100,000 a year from their side practices.
Paul Connick said he plays no role in his firm’s operations. “No court appearances, no pleadings, no depositions, no interrogatories, nothing,” he said.
“I don’t even have an office in the space occupied by the firm,” he added. “Heck, I don’t even have a key to the office.”
To make sure conflicts don’t arise, attorneys at Connick & Connick are required to ask all new clients whether they’re involved in any matter over which the Jefferson Parish DA’s office has jurisdiction, Connick said.
And if an existing client does become involved in a criminal matter, the firm has a policy of notifying the DA’s office, so the office may decide whether recusal is necessary, according to a memo Connick shared.
A 1999 opinion by the state Ethics Board said his firm’s work for Jefferson Parish poses no conflict with his position as DA.
‘The people’s lawyers’
Such questions rarely come up in rural areas of Louisiana, where criminal dockets tend to be much lighter, and where many DAs have small side practices.
The arrangements also largely don’t involve side legal work for public entities. Just two DAs in the state besides Connick reported such an arrangement, with receipts for those two totaling a little more than $100,000 over the past three years combined, records show.
Rural DAs say there are practical reasons for keeping their shingle out.
For one, it makes the job of DA more attractive. Many DAs take a pay cut when they leave their full-time private practice, said Winn Parish District Attorney Chris Nevils, so it’s nice to get some of that back.
“If you’re a good country lawyer, you’re giving up money,” Nevils said. “For sure.”
DAs in rural areas said they also keep side practices open because they are seen by many constituents as the “people’s lawyer.” LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said he often fields calls or walk-ins from people who need help settling minor disputes.
“In a rural parish, a district attorney is expected to be available to help people,” Walters said.
From their private practices last year, Reed and Nevils each reported receiving less than $5,000 in income.