Jury acquits New Orleans’ progressive district attorney of tax fraud charges | US news | #phishing | #scams

New Orleans’s district attorney, Jason Williams, has been acquitted of all charges in a controversial tax fraud trial, clearing a longstanding cloud over his political future and allowing the progressive prosecutor to remain in office in a city that has long been one of America’s leading incarcerators.

Williams, along with his private practice law partner Nicole Burdett, faced a 10-count federal indictment accusing the pair of conspiring to evade taxes over a five-year period by allegedly inflating business expenses and failing to file appropriate documentation for cash payments received by the law firm.

Thursday’s acquittal by the jury in Williams’s case marks a significant victory for the nationwide movement for reformist prosecutors in the US, spurred in the wake of a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, which had been dealt a blow after the recall last month of a progressive prosecutor in San Francisco.

The federal indictment was unveiled when Williams, 49, sat on New Orleans’s city council and had publicly acknowledged he was considering a run for the top prosecutor’s job there, leading to claims that he had been targeted over his political beliefs.

Williams, who maintained a successful criminal defense practice in addition to his council duties, and won an unexpected landslide victory in 2020 to become district attorney despite being under indictment, accused his conservative DA predecessor and longtime political foe Leon Cannizzaro of working behind the scenes to spur on the federal charges.

Besides almost certainly having to serve a prison sentence, Williams would’ve been forced out of office if he had been convicted by the verdict handed down Thursday.

Man wearing a suit reading a stack of stapled papers.
Williams in his office. Photograph: Annie Flanagan/The Guardian

“The idea that talking about race the way I talked about it, talking about being smart on crime and criminal justice reform the way I talked about it, long before the campaign even started, put a target on my back,” Williams told the Guardian earlier this year. “But I think it also helped me win this seat, because people saw the results of speaking out.”

At trial, lawyers for Williams and Burdett were prevented from arguing the indictment was politically motivated and elected not to call any defense witnesses after the government’s star witness, the pair’s former tax preparer Henry Timothy, offered a shambolic performance on the stand.

Timothy, who took a plea deal with the government, admitted to filing improper tax returns for the pair, but he acknowledged he had received no instruction from either Williams or Burdett to illegally lower their tax burden. Timothy has pleaded guilty to a single tax fraud count, relating to his own personal tax returns.

Burdett, a longtime partner of Williams’s private legal practice, was found guilty on four separate counts of tax fraud related to her personal filings. Prosecutors filed those separate charges against her after she refused to cooperate with federal prosecutors in the case they were building against Williams, accusing her of claiming more than $280,000 in fake business expenses in the four tax years between 2014 and 2017.

Williams embraced a sobbing Burdett, 41, after the verdict was read. Burdett is set to lose her law license and could ultimately be ordered to spend time in prison as a result of her convictions.

Her sentencing in front of federal judge Lance Africk is tentatively scheduled for 30 September. Burdett’s attorney on Thursday told reporters she planned to appeal her convictions.

“The government offered Nicole immunity in return for false testimony against Jason Williams,” said Burdett’s lawyer, Michael Magner. “She refused and was charged. We will pursue all lawful remedies.”

Williams’s 2020 election paved the way for other criminal justice reformers in the city. The newly elected Orleans parish sheriff, Susan Hutson, who was endorsed by Williams during her 2021 election, welcomed the jury’s acquittal.

“We, as public servants in our city’s criminal legal system, have a vital role to play to reform this system,” Hutson said in a statement. “I am glad that our district attorney was acquitted by a jury of our community and can now resume his duties and continue to be a leader and a partner in this fight.”

Williams’s fate stands in stark contrast to that of another progressive DA who also ran into strong political headwinds early in his time in office: San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin.

Boudin, a former public defender, was forced into a 7 June recall election by voters frustrated over what they perceived to be a deteriorating sense of safety in the city, a sentiment fueled by viral videos of people shoplifting and attacking senior residents.

A national movement focused broadly on finding alternatives to imprisoning defendants and forcing them to pay cash bail for even relatively petty offenses propelled both Boudin and Williams into their respective offices after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in 2020, sparking protests across the country and calls for reform from the Black Lives Matters movement as well as many others.

Williams’s reform agenda was the subject of a four-part Guardian audio series “The Division,” which examined a newly created civil rights division inside the New Orleans district attorney’s office tasked with re-examining past harms in the city’s criminal legal system, including wrongful convictions and excessive sentencing.

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