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Trial of Orleans DA Jason Williams begins this week with much on the line

The district attorney's trial for tax fraud is about to begin. How did we get here?

NEW ORLEANS — The public first learned that Jason Williams was under federal investigation for tax fraud in June 2020, just three months after he announced he would run to become New Orleans' top criminal prosecutor.

Williams said it was all a political stunt meant to run him out of a race against three-term incumbent DA Leon Cannizzaro.

“It was time to try to knee-cap me or scare me from running to try to change this criminal legal system,” Williams told WWL-TV in September 2020.

But it was more than a pre-election scare tactic. On June 26, 2020, Williams' tax preparer, Henry Timothy, testified before a federal grand jury, claiming Williams and his private law partner, Nicole Burdett, directed him to falsify business expenses to lower their taxes by more than $200,000 over four years.

And that same day, the grand jury returned an 11-count felony indictment, charging Williams and Burdett with conspiracy, fabrication of $720,000 in expenses and failing to report another $66,000 in cash payments to the law firm.

Williams was undeterred. Cannizzaro decided not to run for a fourth term. Williams rode a wave of criminal justice reform and portrayed himself as a target of the political establishment. 

His campaign posters depicted him as St. Sebastian, assailed with arrows, reminiscent of a famous 1968 Esquire magazine cover depicting Muhammad Ali as the martyred saint after he had been stripped of his heavyweight championship for refusing to serve in Vietnam.

“I know we're going to clear this up,” Williams said in a November 2020 interview. “I know I'm going to be vindicated.”

Now, he gets his chance in a criminal trial that starts Monday in front of U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, the city’s top prosecutor being prosecuted by the federal prosecutors from the Western District of Louisiana U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Timothy will be their star witness. But Williams and Burdett have countered Timothy is a crooked tax preparer who made up expenses for other clients, lied to them about being a Certified Public Accountant and even cheated on his own taxes.

There will be some real grist for that defense: In January 2021, Timothy pled guilty to falsifying his own, personal tax returns.

Other witnesses for the government have been lining up, too. Two lawyers in Williams' firm, Bobby Hjorstberg and Gregory Sauzer, also pled guilty to failing to file their own tax returns. And just 10 days ago so did Williams' ex-wife, Bridget Barthelemy, daughter of former New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy.

They are listed among more than 30 government trial witnesses, along with Williams' predecessor as DA, and political rival, Leon Cannizzaro.. now the head of the state Attorney General's criminal division.

Williams did have one major thing go his way leading up to trial. The feds were forced to drop one of the 11 counts against him and Burdett last month, based on evidence that one of the cash payments was, in fact, properly reported as income.

Now, the trial will show if the defense can cast similar doubt on any of the other 10 charges and win acquittal, or if the federal prosecutors can win a conviction that would force Williams out of the DA’s office and into a possible prison sentence.

Timeline of Events:

2008: Jason Williams runs for Orleans Parish District Attorney against Leon Cannizzaro and Ralph Capitelli. Cannizzaro wins first of three terms as DA.

2014: Williams is elected to his first of two terms on the New Orleans City Council.

3/9/2020: Williams announces he will run against Cannizzaro for DA, promising criminal justice reform and rejecting Cannizzaro’s “tough on crime” approach.

June 2020: Williams acknowledges IRS is investigating him for tax fraud and says it is a political stunt to derail his campaign for DA.

6/26/2020: Henry Timothy, Williams’ tax preparer, testifies before the grand jury, claiming Williams and his law partner, Nicole Burdett, directed him to falsify their business expenses. Williams later claims Timothy lied about being a Certified Public Accountant and he and Burdett detrimentally relied on Timothy to file their tax returns properly.

6/26/2020: Grand jury returns an 11-count indictment against Williams and Burdett for conspiracy, falsifying $720,000 in Williams’ expenses to reduce his taxes by more than $200,000, and failing to report $66,000 in the law firm’s cash income.

7/24/2020: Cannizzaro announces he won’t seek reelection to a fourth term as DA.

11/3/2020: Williams finishes second in a 4-way primary for DA.

12/5/2020: Williams wins the runoff election for DA over Judge Keva Landrum, capturing 58 percent of the vote.

1/7/2021: Timothy, the government’s star witness against Williams and Burdett, pleads guilty to falsifying his own tax returns.

3/10/2021: An attorney in Williams’ private law firm, Bobby Hjortsberg, pleads guilty to failing to file a tax return. Hjortsberg is on the government’s witness list.

5/18/2022: The IRS files a lien against Williams’ private residence on St. Charles Avenue for failure to pay $274,000 in taxes in 2019.

6/10/2022: One of the counts of failing to report cash income is dismissed after the defense presents exculpatory evidence to Judge Lance Africk.

6/16/2022: Another attorney in Williams’ law office, Gregory Sauzer, is charged with failing to file four years of tax returns. Sauzer is on the government’s witness list.

7/8/2022: Williams’ ex-wife, Bridget Barthelemy, is charged with failing to file a tax return after the couple was already divorced. Barthelemy is on the government’s witness list.

7/18/2022: Jury selection begins in the federal trial.

RELATED: Former lawyer from DA Jason Williams' private law firm charged with tax crimes

RELATED: Judge tosses one of 11 tax fraud charges against DA Jason Williams

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