NEW ORLEANS -- The Southern Poverty Law Center on Thursday asked the state’s legal ethics agency to launch investigations into the Orleans and Jefferson parish district attorney’s offices and their use of so-called “fake subpoenas” as a way to pressure witnesses to speak to prosecutors.
But Charles Plattsmier, who heads up the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, told The New Orleans Advocate his office has undertaken a wider-reaching probe and is conducting a statewide inquiry into the documents.
“From the outset we were aware of and we have begun looking into the practice of the issuing of the subpoenas, or documents that do not comply with the Code of Criminal Procedure in criminal cases, so-called ‘district attorney subpoenas,’” Plattsmier, the agency’s chief disciplinary counsel, said.
Only a court can issue a subpoena, and none of the documents either DA’s office used were legal subpoenas.
The SPLC said investigations are needed to determine the scope of the practice “and to hold the lawyers involved accountable for violations of the Louisiana rules of professional conduct, which forbid lawyers from engaging in deception.”
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office changed its procedures in recent months after The Lens first reported on the practice of using documents labeled as subpoenas that threatened fines or jail time as a way to coerce witnesses into testifying.
Cannizzaro told WWL-TV in April that his office would drop the subpoena heading from its notices. They now read “notice to appear.” He has said the practice was in place since witnesses are often reluctant to speak with his office.
The SPLC’s filing notes Cannizzaro has not been willing to identify which assistant district attorneys issued them. The state ACLU has sued Cannizzaro’s office as it seeks to find out what prosecutors used the documents. A judge has ruled the office must turn over those documents, something the Orleans DA has appealed.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro said the office had not yet seen the complaint -- which would typically be private but was released by the SPLC -- and declined to comment until it could be reviewed.
In Jefferson Parish, “District Attorney (Paul) Connick and the assistant district attorneys in his office have admitted to manipulating the judicial process by fabricating documents to appear as subpoenas and serving them upon members of the public,” the SPLC’s complaint reads.
Unlike the Orleans DA’s office, the Jefferson Parish DA’s office’s “fake subpoenas” did not threaten witnesses with any form of punishment. His office has since stopped issuing those notices but has not revealed which assistant district attorneys used the documents.
A spokesman for Connick said the office had no comment.
Plattsmier did not return a call Thursday afternoon from WWL-TV. But he told The Advocate the probe began around the same time The Lens published its story.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel has the power to recommend legal sanctions against lawyers who violate ethics rules in Louisiana. If contested, its decisions must be ratified by the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board and state Supreme Court before taking effect.
Attorneys can receive a public reprimand or the suspension of their license if they are found to have engaged in misconduct.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel has not confirmed whether it is investigating individual prosecutors at the district attorneys' offices, The Advocate reported. The agency does have the power to subpoena prosecutors for more information.
New Orleans Advocate reporter Matt Sledge contributed to this report.