Prosecutors deny allegations from Juvenile Court Judge Yolanda King

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office have come out swinging against allegations that the prosecution of Juvenile Court Judge Yolanda King reeks of political revenge, rebutting a claim by King’s attorney, Clarence Roby Jr., that an Orleans prosecutor was present in March when a grand jury voted to indict her.

Meanwhile, a private investigator who dug into King’s residency, staking out a house in Slidell where King claimed a homestead exemption for years and delivering his findings to state investigators, said he testified before the grand jury on March 20 with no Orleans Parish prosecutors in sight.

Caldwell’s office is prosecuting King for allegedly lying about where she lived in her election-qualifying affidavit last year. Cannizzaro, who threw his political weight behind King’s runoff opponent, former Jefferson Parish prosecutor Doug Hammel, had declined to prosecute the case.

But in a politically charged allegation, Roby has claimed that Cannizzaro wielded an invisible hand in King’s prosecution, violating her rights.

Roby filed a motion Wednesday to quash the indictment against King, accusing prosecutors of misconduct “at the behest of a disgruntled and vindictive lawyer and political opponent.”

According to Roby, the state turned over evidence in the case showing, among other alleged misconduct, that a member of Cannizzaro’s office was present in the grand jury room.

In a letter to The New Orleans Advocate on Friday, Cannizzaro accused Roby of trying to “convert this process to a political circus by leveling downright dishonest attacks at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.”

Roby had cited the response to his demand for the identities of anyone from Cannizzaro’s office who was present during the grand jury process. He said Assistant Attorney General Sonceree Smith Clark responded with an admission that an assistant district attorney was there.

Cannizzaro produced Clark’s response, which says, “A separate case was presented to the grand jury by an assistant district attorney prior to my presentation; however, I do not know the name of that individual.”

In his letter to the newspaper, Cannizzaro said none of his prosecutors were in the grand jury room for King’s indictment. A spokeswoman for Caldwell’s office supported that claim Friday.

“District Attorney Cannizzaro is absolutely correct when he states that no representative of his office was anywhere in the room for the grand jury proceedings involving Yolanda King,” Laura Gerdes said in an email. “Any allegation to the contrary is completely false and without merit. We have no worries at all about the validity of this indictment.”

Roby did not respond to a request to discuss his allegation. A hearing on the motion to quash the indictment is scheduled for Thursday before ad hoc Judge Michael Kirby.

The state constitution says judges must have been domiciled in the parish or district where they serve for at least a year prior to election. Another clause says Orleans Parish Juvenile Court judges, in particular, “shall have resided in the Parish of Orleans for at least two years immediately preceding their election.”

Private investigator John Carroll, a former Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy, claims he found King living in the Slidell house, despite her listing a New Orleans domicile on a sworn affidavit in February 2013.

Carroll said he was the only witness to testify before the grand jury that accused King of filing false public records, a felony, and a misdemeanor election code violation.

“I just told them everything I did. I left with the prosecutor, and she told me I was the only one testifying,” said Carroll, who identified the prosecutor as Clark. “It was just her and I at the table with the grand jury, and that was it. Nobody representing the District Attorney’s Office. I can guarantee it.”

Carroll has refused to say who hired him to probe into King’s residency.

Hammel said Friday it wasn’t him or his campaign.

Cynthia Samuel, a family law attorney who lost in the primary for the judgeship King eventually won and then filed a complaint with Cannizzaro’s office about both Hammel and King, refused to say whether she paid Carroll to try to dig up dirt on King.

Roby is seeking to force Carroll to turn over documents and cashed checks to find out. He also wants reports and audio and video tape from the FBI.

This year, as King fought a recommendation by the Judiciary Commission to suspend her, she claimed 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 Louisiana Supreme Court.

“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.”

The high court barred King from taking the bench while the criminal case against her is pending.

Williams has declined to specify whom the FBI was purportedly targeting, and an FBI spokeswoman declined to confirm or deny any investigation.

Numerous elected officials have faced allegations of living outside of the parish where they run, but King appears to be the first in the state to be prosecuted criminally for allegedly lying about her residence. The felony charge against her carries a maximum five-year sentence if she’s convicted.

In his three-page report on King, Carroll describes a two-week investigation that began May 14, 2013, 10 days after King won a surprising runoff victory over Hammell by nearly 2,700 votes.

He said he interviewed neighbors and videotaped King pulling her Nissan Murano out of the garage of the Slidell home at 6 a.m. He found the Nissan later that day parked at City Hall, near where Juvenile Court is located, his report says.

He said he found driver’s license information showing King had changed her address from Bundy Road in Orleans Parish to 5536 Stillwater Drive in New Orleans — the address she listed on campaign qualifying forms last year and dating back to 2002. The records also showed the homestead exemption for a house in Slidell for 2007 and beyond, and a Road Home grant document for the address.

Carroll said he reached out to Caldwell’s office with the details.

“I handed them my entire investigation,” he said. “There wasn’t much for them to do after that.”

Roby points to documents showing that St. Tammany Parish officials canceled what he called King’s “errant automatic homestead exemption” in April 2013. Yet St. Tammany assessor records show that King signed for the tax exemption months after she bought the house in 2006. By law, one can apply for a homestead exemption only for a residence where he or she actually lives.

Other documents, including her December 2012 bankruptcy filing, list 1638 Chancer Lane in Slidell as her primary address. A “witness roster” in the criminal case also lists the Slidell address for King.

King has maintained that the homestead exemption was an error and that her twin sister, not King, lives in the Slidell house.

Questions about King’s residency emerged early in the campaign leading up to the April 6, 2013, primary. It was Hammel’s campaign that dug them up.

“I got everybody that was in the race and I went out to the address, and hers was a slab on a vacant lot there,” said Joe Sobol, a Hammel strategist on a campaign team that also included Cannizzaro’s closest political confidant, Billy Schultz. Sobol was referring to the address on Bundy Road that King had claimed in an earlier election and on her driver’s license.

The consensus among the Hammel team, he said, was that challenging King’s residence before the election could do more harm than good. But Sobol said he kept digging.

“I put together a dossier on this woman, why she wasn’t qualified,” he said. “If copies were made and handed out to the press or to other candidates, I personally did not do that. I could see that being done.”

Samuel, however, said it was Sobol who tipped off her campaign to King’s residency issue, eight days after the end of the qualifying period in February. Voters can challenge a candidate’s eligibility up to seven days after the qualifying window ends. Samuel also said the information she got from Hammel’s campaign was too vague.

“It wasn’t sufficient to take any action, and I dismissed it. I also knew it was the eighth day,” Samuel said.

But after losing in the primary and doing some research, Samuel said, she filed a complaint with Cannizzaro’s office on April 9, 2013. In it, she mostly raised questions about Hammel’s residency based on voting and property records from Florida. Just two paragraphs are spent noting King’s homestead exemption in St. Tammany Parish. Samuel said that’s because she didn’t have much to go on.

Her letter also was sent to Caldwell’s office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Samuel said Cannizzaro’s office called about a week later, saying that office had recused itself from the case.

Only on April 11, 2014, three weeks after King’s indictment, however, did Cannizzaro’s office send a formal recusal letter to the Attorney General’s Office. Roby has made an issue of that timing.

Christopher Bowman, a Cannizzaro spokesman, did not respond Friday to questions about the letter or why it was sent in April.

Only late in the campaign, when a Hammel attack flier showed the empty lot and claimed King “does not even live in New Orleans,” listing the Bundy Road address, did Samuel spring into action, she said. Sobol said the flier was Schultz’s work.

“If you need to go negative,” he said, “you hire Billy.”

Samuel said she recalled an exchange with King on the campaign trail.

“Yolanda King told me during the campaign that she was being followed,” Samuel said. “There was only one other candidate who had the means to arrange such a thing.”

Sobol said the campaign never hired Carroll or any other investigator to track King.

“I didn’t follow her,” he said. “I did stake out that house in Slidell one time.”

Hammel said he never hired anyone to trace King’s steps. He also denied that anyone pressed very hard for King to exit the race.

“I tried to reach out to people who might know her and to say, ‘Could you let her know we’re pretty sure she lives in Slidell, and it might not be the best idea (to stay in the race)?’ ” Hammel said. “What we got back was: ‘Don’t worry about that. I have several residences, only one domicile. That’s my sister who lives out there.’ ”

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.