James Gill: DA staffer’s p.r. role gets him in trouble

It was unfamiliar roles all around at a hearing Monday, when a judge appeared in the role of victim, a prosecutor was the alleged perp and his boss testified for the defense.

Their lawyers devoted much of the time to semantic quibbles for the benefit of a three-member panel, which will decide in the fullness of time whether further proceedings are appropriate. The bone of contention was one clause in a remark quoted in a newspaper, which seemed a slim pretext for so much fuss.

Still, it showed that friction persists between Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro’s office and the criminal court bench. The question now before the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel is how far an attorney may go in badmouthing a judge.

In the dock was Assistant DA Christopher Bowman, who is well known to the press because he doubles as Cannizzaro’s spokesman. He was there in response to a complaint from state district judge Arthur Hunter, who took umbrage after Bowman blasted his verdict in the case of Kenneth Ferdinand last year.

Ferdinand, as director of the French Market Corp., was issued an official credit card, which he flashed in the time-honored fashion. Quizzed by his board over charges with no apparent connection to his duties, he ’fessed up. He had been living high on the hog at French Market expense and promised to repay $11,000.

He came up with $5,000, and promised to find the balance, but he forgot all about that when he got canned. Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux investigated and forwarded his report to Cannizzaro, who charged Ferdinand with theft. Ferdinand elected to be tried without a jury.

In finding him not guilty, Hunter issued written reasons, which criminal court judges seldom do. Even odder, he threw in a paragraph noting that he had found New Orleans police officer Jermaine Lacour guilty as charged in a totally unrelated case a few months earlier. He evidently felt a need to reassure the public that he wasn’t a habitual acquitter. Dragging Lacour out of left field served no other purpose.

When the Ferdinand verdict was rendered, after two days of testimony that came six weeks apart, reporter John Simerman needed the state’s reaction. Simerman now works for The Advocate, but was then with another New Orleans newspaper, the name of which, for the moment, escapes me.

“District Attorney Cannizzaro has fought hard to eliminate corruption, and unfortunately Arthur Hunter has thwarted our efforts today. His press release — I mean verdict — is extremely confusing,” Bowman told Simerman. When Hunter read his paper, he complained that Bowman had violated the rule that says, “A lawyer should not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge.”

Counsel at Tuesday’s hearing went around in several circles debating the connotations of “thwart,” which, according to Bowman’s side, are not always negative. Maybe so, but they sure are in this context. The only meaning that can conceivably be attached to Bowman’s quote is that Hunter had reached a verdict that got in the way of Cannizzaro’s campaign to run the crooks out of public life in New Orleans. That may be no more than a factual statement.

Certainly, Bowman testified that he still believed what he said, and then wheeled out Cannizzaro to back him up. Both denied attributing an improper motive to Hunter or impugning his intelligence, but were on shaky ground on the second point, since both clearly thought the verdict exceedingly dumb. “I don’t know what else I could do” to prove Ferdinand’s guilt, Cannizzaro testified.

But, if Hunter undermined his position by citing the Lacour case out of the blue, Bowman did the same for his by testifying that, when Simerman called, it was on a Friday night and he was rushing to get ready for a date. If the implication was that Bowman might regret his off-hand remark, however, Cannizzaro testified he was unfazed when he read it in the paper.

This is not the first time Bowman has gotten in trouble for taking exception to written reasons for an acquittal by a judge. Last year he issued a news release accusing Terry Alarcon, since retired, of “circular legal analysis” that would make “any real student of the law dizzy.” He was forced to undergo ethics training. This time he could wind up with a reprimand on his record, which just goes to show that press spokesmen are better off not being lawyers. That way they can say what they want about judges.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.