NEW ORLEANS — Diedre Pierce Kelly qualified as a candidate for Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judge last week with a slew of endorsements from the political establishment, including U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, five state legislators, all three criminal court clerks and six of the seven City Council members.
Kelly is running in the March 25 election for the Section A judge seat being vacated by retiring Judge Laurie White. Kelly faces Simone Levine, an Orleans Parish prosecutor and former director of the watchdog group CourtWatch NOLA, and Leon Roché, a criminal defense attorney and former Orleans Parish public defender.
In her announcement, Kelly touted her experience since the age of 16 in the halls of justice, mostly working for attorney and political consultant Ike Spears.
But one part of her experience she doesn’t mention and has avoided answering questions about for years is her admission, under oath and in court records, that she forged Spears’ notarial signature on several legal documents, including a multi-million-dollar will in 2009 and her own application to the Louisiana Bar to practice law in 2011.
The admitted forgeries led to Kelly’s 19-month suspension from the Louisiana Bar in 2015-2016 and upended her last opportunity to run for Criminal Court judge in 2020. One of her opponents, defense attorney Gary Wainwright, successfully challenged her candidacy by showing that the suspension left her with less than the required eight years’ experience in the Louisiana Bar to be a judge.
That is no longer the case, however. Wainwright says he’s not running against her this time, but he hopes the voters reject her candidacy based on her actions before she became an attorney.
“I just don't know that a person who's an admitted forger should have access to legal documents that have to do with a person's imprisonment,” Wainwright said.
Wainwright kept Kelly off the ballot in 2020, but she had been suspended because of a complaint filed in 2013 by Gary Feindel, an Idaho resident. Feindel was the primary beneficiary listed by 75-year-old Fred David Manis on his will.
The will bequeathed Feindel cash, all of Manis’ personal property, lifetime use of his Marigny home and a trust that would pay Feindel $1,200 a month for the rest of his life, upon Manis’ death.
Louisiana Supreme Court records show Manis came to the UPS Store on Elysian Fields Avenue on July 7, 2009, seeking a notary to make his will official. Spears owned the store and provided notarial services there.
But Feindel posted a video to YouTube showing the will was not signed by Spears but by Kelly, who was not an attorney or notary and was working for Spears as a clerk at the time.
Presented with the video, Kelly later admitted under oath that she forged Spears’ signature on Manis’ will, and Spears said his name was signed without his knowledge or consent. Kelly claimed she didn’t realize it was illegal.
Spears continued to employ Kelly, including as a staff attorney at Spears & Spears law firm after she was admitted to the bar in 2011. And in 2020, five years after Kelly admitted forging Spears’ signature, Spears, his law firm and his political consulting firm seeded her campaign more than $5,000. That’s about a quarter of the money she’s now using to run for the Section A judgeship.
“An admitted forger is being run to be a judge in a criminal district court, and her campaign is being run by the victim of her forgery,” Wainwright said. “You can't make this stuff up!”
Spears did not respond to requests for comment.
Kelly testified under oath about the matter when Feindel filed a disciplinary complaint against her to the Louisiana Supreme Court. In that testimony, she admitted she signed Spears’ signature to other documents “maybe one time” in addition to the 2009 will.
And later — after first claiming not to remember, and after she had to submit handwriting samples to investigators — she agreed to a yearlong suspension by admitting that she also forged Spears’ signature on her own application to the Louisiana Bar, so she could practice law in the state.
“When you're talking about 'doesn't know the law' and 'not trustworthy,' that's an incredible combination to be seeking to become judge,” Wainwright said.
Kelly declined to be interviewed, first for a story by The Times-Picayune when she tried to run in 2020 and then for this story by WWL-TV. She did provide WWL-TV with a statement last week, in which she admitted making a “bad decision” when she was younger and described how she uses that experience to mentor young people.
“I explain that we all make missteps and when we do, you take responsibility and we learn from the experience,” she said. "Since that time, I went on to graduate from law school and pass the bar. Also, I have been a practicing attorney without blemish ever since — serving and fighting for our community while mentoring our youth with my own personal story about responsibility and redemption.”
For the last year, Kelly has served as chief of staff for City Councilman Oliver Thomas, who likens Kelly’s redemption story to his own. Thomas regained a seat on the council after serving more than two years in prison for taking a $20,000 bribe.
“I've made mistakes,” Thomas said. “We're all going to make more mistakes. But how do you rise up in spite of it? And we should be celebrating this young woman, not using politics to put her down. That was some time ago, and I think she's answered it well. But with her life, to be honest with you, with the work that she's done.”
Kelly has not addressed her record head-on, as Thomas so often does. She certainly didn’t mention it in her campaign announcement last week, in which she touted her strong legal experience by saying she “began her legal career at the age of 16” working for Spears.
Thomas explained Kelly’s decision to not do an interview this way:
“Some people are truly embarrassed by their mistakes. Many people, it takes time for them to overcome that mistake, especially because they're committed to doing right. I would ask the public not to question what she did, but celebrate what she's doing, and she's doing a good job now.”
Kelly was never charged with a crime. She testified in 2015 that the district attorney questioned her about the forgeries and decided not to pursue any felony charges against her. But her actions had real consequences for Gary Feindel.
In 2012, just days before Manis died in hospice, court records show LSU Foundation officials allegedly met with Manis and convinced him to change his will to give most of the proceeds to the foundation. Feindel argued in court that Manis was “not of sound mind” at the time and the 2009 will should stand. But the LSU Foundation countered that the earlier will was null and void, all because Kelly had forged the notarial signature.
Orleans Civil District Judge Sidney Cates IV agreed, and Feindel received no property, no trust income and a single cash payment of $100,000.
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