Orleans Parish DA Jason Williams acquitted in federal tax fraud trial; Burdett convicted of four separate charges

Published: Jul. 28, 2022 at 2:06 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams was acquitted of all 10 counts of conspiracy and tax fraud Thursday (July 28), in a dramatic finish to his nine-day trial.

Williams’ law partner Nicole Burdett also was found not guilty on the same 10 counts from a June 2020 indictment, when the jury of nine women and three men returned its verdicts after more than 15 hours of deliberations. The verdict was delivered at 1:55 p.m. in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Lance M. Africk.

But Burdett was convicted of four counts -- separately indicted in December 2020 -- which charged that she falsified her own personal tax returns with more than $280,000 in inflated business expenses for the tax years 2014-17. Those felony convictions will cost Burdett her law license and expose her to a possible federal prison term when she is sentenced by Africk on Nov. 30.

Williams and a crying Burdett rose from their separate defense tables and hugged after the verdicts were read.

The acquittal clears the way for Williams, presumably, to serve out the remaining four-plus years of his term as the city’s top prosecutor through early January 2027, free of the dark cloud of pending criminal charges that had dogged him for more than two years.

Prosecutors alleged the pair failed to report four large cash payments and conspired with a Westwego tax preparer to inflate business expenses by more than $700,000 over a five-year period, in order to spare themselves and the Jason Rogers Williams and Associates law firm more than $200,000 in taxes owed to the federal government.

City leaders began issuing statements in email and on social media following the verdict.

“The City of New Orleans appreciates the thoughtfulness and consideration the women and men of the jury gave to this case,” said Mayor LaToya Cantrell. “We are grateful for their service to our city. With this verdict on a personal matter now rendered, the City looks forward to the District Attorney returning his focus to the residents of the City of New Orleans and their public safety.”

U.S. Attorney Kelly Uebinger headed a team of prosecutors from the Western District of Louisiana that took on the case, after the local Eastern District office headed by interim U.S. Attorney Duane Evans recused itself. Trial observers generally panned the prosecution’s performance after its key witness -- tax preparer Henry Timothy -- seemed unprepared and unconvincing to jurors.

“You have to deal with the hand you’re dealt,” said former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg, a legal analyst for Fox 8.

“Jason Williams and his lawyers were able to salvage his position as an elected official and his status as an attorney. ... His confidence proved to be on the spot. This turned out this is a day he can go out and celebrate just a bit.”

Fox 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti said Uebinger redeemed herself somewhat with a strong closing argument, but jurors ultimately were not swayed.

New Orleans attorney Nicole Burdett, co-defendant in a tax fraud case against District Attorney...
New Orleans attorney Nicole Burdett, co-defendant in a tax fraud case against District Attorney Jason Williams, was found guilty on four counts of tax fraud related to her own personal tax returns.(EBRSO)

So confident were Williams and Burdett that the government had failed to prove their guilt, both defendants and their legal teams opted not to put on a defense witness after Uebinger rested the government’s case Tuesday around 10 a.m.

After the closing argument from Uebinger, Williams’ attorney Lisa Wayne and Burdett’s lawyer Michael Magner attacked the government’s investigation as sloppy, misguided and incomplete. Their clients, they said, were guilty of nothing more than trusting Timothy to examine the business receipts they provided, use the allowed deductions and properly prepare their tax returns.

“Why did they need Henry Timothy?” Uebinger asked jurors rhetorically in her summation. “He was their pawn. He was the perfect fall guy. He’s the guy that never says no. He’s the guy who does exactly what they ask him to do.”

The prosecutor said Williams, Burdett and Timothy -- who already had pleaded guilty to falsifying his own tax returns -- were “birds of a feather.”

“They flock together,” Uebinger said. “They are all tax cheats.”

But jurors did not see it that way.

Williams was represented by defense attorneys Lisa Wayne of Colorado and Billy Gibbens of New Orleans, and Burdett by local attorney Michael Magner, himself a former federal prosecutor.

Williams, while serving on the New Orleans City Council, was indicted with Burdett in June 2020 on 11 felony tax fraud counts. The government dismissed one count weeks before the trial began, after documentation showed that one cash payment exceeding $10,000 had been reported to the Internal Revenue Service as required.

The remaining counts included one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, five counts of aiding and assisting in the preparation and presentation of false and fraudulent tax returns, and four remaining counts of failing to file forms reporting cash payments received in the trade of business.

The four other cash payments allegedly received from clients by Williams’ law firm, but not reported on tax returns, ranged in amounts between $11,116 and $15,000, according to the indictment.

Williams initially blamed his criminal charges on District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, his anticipated political rival later in 2020. But Williams produced no evidence supporting that allegation. After Cannizzaro announced in July 2020 that he would not seek a third term, Williams later claimed President Trump and his Attorney General William Barr had targeted him with the indictment because he was a Black attorney running for DA on a “progressive” platform.

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Williams’ attempts to have the case against him dismissed on those claims of a selective or vindictive prosecution were denied during pre-trial motions by Judge Martin Feldman. Africk, who was assigned the case after Feldman’s death in January 2022, also barred Williams and his attorneys from resurrecting debunked claims of racial or political bias as elements of his defense.

In a previous court filing in the case, federal prosecutors said Williams “has an extensive history with the IRS that spans nearly two decades,” and that by 2011 he owed more than $92,000 in outstanding taxes and penalties. The charges unfurled in the June 2020 indictment addressed only alleged crimes in the 2013-17 tax years.

Fox 8′s Lee Zurik reported in May 2022 that the IRS has also alleged that Williams failed to pay nearly $274,000 in income taxes due in 2019. The agency filed a new federal tax lien, alleging Williams and his second wife Elizabeth failed to pay a 1040 income tax return for the 2019 tax year.

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