As Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams grilled a defendant charged with murder Wednesday in his first trial as a prosecutor, a panel at the downtown federal appeals court weighed the evidence that a jury will be allowed to hear in Williams’ ongoing federal tax evasion trial. charges.
A federal prosecutor has asked a panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a December ruling by U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman that barred the government from presenting evidence of tax problems Williams’ past, including arrears and a $90,000 lien.
Williams and his legal partner Nicole Burdett face an 11-count indictment that accuses them of conspiring to inflate Williams’ business expenses in the five fiscal years ending in 2017, to the tune of more $200,000 in ill-gotten savings. Tax preparer Henry Timothy, the government’s star witness in the case, helped the couple.
But Williams and Burdett claim that Timothy inflated those claims with illegal business inferences on his own. Timothy pleaded guilty in his own tax case.
Prosecutors argued that Williams originally hired Timothy to clean up his flawed past tax returns, as a sort of trial for subsequent years of fraud. Assistant U.S. Attorney Forrest Phillips argued Wednesday that denying prosecutors the opportunity to show Williams’ tax lien, in particular, would leave jurors missing much of the picture.
“That privilege clearly plays a part in explaining why this plot came to be,” Phillips said.
Feldman died in late January, the same week Williams and Burdett were due to stand trial before prosecutors filed their appeal. The pair were indicted in June 2020, a month before Williams qualified for DA. He won the seat hands down in a December runoff against Keva Landrum, a former Orleans Parish Criminal Court judge.
Williams, who campaigned as a criminal justice reformer, claimed a political motive behind his prosecution.
In his ruling on evidence, Feldman said he feared Williams’ years of disputes with the IRS, which never amounted to a criminal case, would unfairly color him to the jury as “the type of person who cheats.” and escapes the IRS. Feldman ruled that “any probative value of this evidence of civil tax history is more than outweighed, not only by danger of unjust prejudice, but also by confusion of issues and deception of the jury.”
Williams’ attorney Billy Gibbens argued that Feldman was correct.
“It has nothing to do with fraud,” Gibbens explained of Williams’ tax history, dating back to 2002. “It’s just late filings and liens.”
After Feldman’s death, the case was reassigned to U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who did not set a new trial date.
Although the panel, made up of 5th Circuit judges Jerry Smith, Gregg Costa and Cory Wilson, did not immediately rule on Wednesday, Costa and Wilson both expressed doubts that Feldman abused his discretion in his decision.
Neither Williams nor Burdett attended the hearing. Williams was in an Orleans Parish courtroom to question Samuel Hunter, who took the witness stand to defend himself against a second-degree murder charge in the shooting death of 19-year-old Anthony Bridges. in the Leonidas neighborhood on Christmas Day 2020.
The appeals court ended up delaying sentencing in another high-profile case on Wednesday: Former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain, also represented by Gibbens, was to be sentenced after pleading guilty to one count of corruption charges for a kickback scheme involving a work out program.
Strain was previously sentenced to life in prison last month following his state conviction for sex crimes against boys.
Writer Jillian Kramer contributed to this story.