Judge Yolanda King: Prosecution is payback by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office

Yolanda King Show caption
Yolanda King

Motion alleges political motives behind indictment

An attorney for indicted Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Yolanda King on Wednesday alleged District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office waged a clandestine campaign to get her tossed from her hard-won seat, and he urged a state judge to throw out an indictment accusing King of lying about her residence in a sworn candidate affidavit.

In a motion to quash the March 20 indictment against King, attorney Clarence Roby Jr. claims prosecutorial misconduct and hidden political motives.

For one thing, Roby said, the state has turned over evidence showing that a member of Cannizzaro’s office was present in the grand jury room when the indictment against King was handed up. Roby claims that violated grand jury secrecy rules.

Roby also questioned how several members of the news media knew to show up at the Orleans Parish Criminal Courthouse when the grand jury returned its indictment against King for allegedly filing a false public record and violating the state election code.

And he pointed to the fact that while Cannizzaro’s office claimed it had recused itself from the case early on, it formally did so only this year, in an April 11 letter to Assistant Attorney General Kurt Wall. That recusal letter was dated three weeks after King’s indictment, and it offered no explanation for why Cannizzaro decided to step aside.

According to Roby, it all adds up to a malicious bid to exact revenge for King’s surprising runoff victory last year against former Jefferson Parish prosecutor Doug Hammel, Cannizzaro’s choice for the Section E seat in Juvenile Court.

Cannizzaro’s longtime political confidant, Billy Schultz, was a paid campaign consultant for Hammel, who lost in the runoff, getting 46 percent of the vote to King’s 54 percent.

Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro, declined to address the issue of whether a member of the office was present in the grand jury room, but he strongly denied the office was involved in seeking the indictment.

“We have never had any involvement in the prosecution of this case,” he said.

Bowman said Cannizzaro recused his office because of his endorsement of Hammel.

King has pleaded not guilty to one felony and one misdemeanor count for claiming a New Orleans address in sworn documents. Prosecutors with Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office say she actually lived at a house she bought in 2006 on Chancer Lane in Slidell, where records show she filed later the same year for a homestead exemption — one she continued to enjoy through 2012. By law, a homestead exemption is available only for someone’s principal residence.

On May 15, the Louisiana Supreme Court barred King from sitting on the bench while the criminal case is pending. She is being paid but is prohibited “from exercising any judicial function during the pendency of further proceedings.”

All 12 judges at Criminal District Court have recused themselves from the case, saying King “is known to the judges personally and/or professionally.”

The Louisiana Supreme Court, in a May 6 order signed by Justice Jeannette Knoll, appointed retired Judge Michael Kirby to preside over the case. No trial date has been set.

King, 56, faces up to five years in prison if convicted of the felony charge against her.

Roby paints a picture of a District Attorney’s Office bitter over Hammel’s defeat and out for revenge.

“It is important to note that while the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office attempted to shape public perception of disinterest and no involvement in the process, the truth is that it was involved, whether the involvement could be construed as tacit or direct, by its very presence during the grand jury proceedings,” Roby wrote in the six-page motion.

“This is evidence of the prosecution’s attempt to unseat Judge King, the previously perceived ‘underdog in the election’ who like David defeated Goliath.”

Caldwell’s office “allowed a member of the Orleans Parish’s District Attorney’s Office to be present during the presentation of the case under the pretense that ... he was there in connection with another case,” Roby charged.

According to Roby, that’s evidence that King’s indictment was “nothing more than a political prosecution.”

The motion doesn’t name the employee of the District Attorney’s Office who was allegedly present.

Roby also claims a state investigator, Gerald Bayer, pressured Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Sandra Wilson to strike King from the voter rolls, on June 17, 2013, after King had taken office. Wilson later reinstated King as a registered Orleans Parish voter after the judge submitted proof of her residency, the motion states.

King’s residency became a campaign issue before she scored a surprise victory over Hammel in a runoff to complete the term of Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier, who had won a seat at Criminal District Court. It was King’s fifth attempt at a judgeship. Most vocal was candidate Cynthia Samuel, who lost in the primary but lodged a complaint with Cannizzaro’s office.

To run for office, candidates must sign a sworn statement that attests to their address and that they are a registered voter in the parish. King filled out a notice of candidacy on Feb. 13, 2013, that listed her address as 5336 Stillwater Drive in New Orleans.

King has said the homestead exemption on the Slidell property was an inadvertent mistake and that she has dropped it and paid back the tax reductions it gave her. Still, several public documents, including King’s 2012 bankruptcy filing — along with neighbors — point to her living in the Slidell house in the months leading up to her election.

The state constitution says judges in Louisiana “shall have been domiciled in the respective district, circuit or parish for one year preceding election.”

Another clause says Orleans Parish Juvenile Court judges “shall have resided in the Parish of Orleans for at least two years immediately preceding their election.”

Earlier, as King fought a recommendation by the Judiciary Commission to suspend her, she claimed that she was cooperating with the FBI in an investigation of which she was not the target.

“Part of the FBI investigation involved Judge King being threatened with criminal prosecution and a Judiciary Commission investigation if she did not meet the demands being made by the FBI targets,” her attorney, James Williams, wrote to the court. He did not identify those purported targets.

“The FBI conducted extensive surveillance and recorded evidence of these threats. Judge King ultimately did not meet the demands of the FBI targets. Not coincidentally, she is now being prosecuted and investigated both criminally and by the Judiciary Commission.”

Roby has been pressing for the state and the FBI to turn over evidence to help in King’s defense.

He has demanded that the FBI turn over reports by agents and “any and all audio/video” they prepared between Feb. 1, 2013, and July 30, 2013. It was not clear Wednesday whether Roby had received the material. He did not return numerous calls on Wednesday.

An FBI spokeswoman has declined to comment on any investigations related to King.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.