St. Tammany Parish Assessor’s Office records show that Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Yolanda King signed an application in 2006 claiming a homestead exemption for a house she had recently bought in Slidell and kept the exemption through 2012.
The discovery casts doubt on an earlier claim by her attorney that she was an unknowing beneficiary — and now a victim — of someone else’s decision to give her the exemption.
King, under indictment for lying when she claimed a New Orleans domicile in sworn qualifying papers last year, had earlier claimed the tax break was a mistake. Her attorney, Clarence Roby Jr., said last week that she never sought it.
By law, only a person who owns and occupies a house as his or her principal residence is eligible to receive a homestead exemption.
Residents can claim a homestead exemption on only a single property, and they must register to vote in the parish where they claim the exemption.
“She never engaged in any conduct one could remotely claim showed the intent to claim a homestead exemption,” Roby said last week, claiming that King’s legal troubles stem from an old practice by the St. Tammany assessor of granting the tax break automatically to owners who listed a mailing address at the property they bought. That practice ended in 2010.
Assessor’s Office records tell a different story, and now so does King, who was indicted March 24 on two felony counts for filing a false public record and violating the state election code.
Her signature appears on an application for a homestead exemption recorded on Sept. 8, 2006, the same year she bought the house on Chancer Lane in Slidell for $140,000.
Presented with the document, Roby shifted gears Friday, saying King told him the application was among a slew of papers that she signed with little scrutiny when she closed on the property.
“People give you a stack of (stuff) saying, ‘Sign here, sign here.’ I don’t think that’s in any way inconsistent with what has been said in the past regarding no intent to claim any type of exemption” by King, Roby said. “The only thing I know is, she’s never gone to the Assessor’s Office and claimed it. She represented to me that she signed it at closing, and it was automatically renewed.”
However, court records show the application, in which King sought to claim the exemption for 2007, was dated five months after the sale of the house and accompanying mortgage documents were filed.
A title company officer in St. Tammany Parish said applications for the homestead tax break are not among the standard closing documents that buyers sign.
“What they have to do is take the recorded sale to the Assessor’s Office. They have to take other documents as well, proof that you live there — a utility bill or some sort of proof that you get mail there and the utilities are in your name,” said Kim Hunt, a notarial secretary at the Mandeville office of Winters Title. The company was not involved in King’s purchase of the home.
King’s signature also appears on a declaration of covenants for a Road Home grant recorded in January 2008 for the Chancer Lane property, court records show. In the declaration, King pledged to occupy the property as her primary residence within three years.
Online assessor records show that King kept the homestead exemption in Slidell from 2007 until 2012. She had the exemption in 2008, when she lost a bid for an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court seat. On her qualifying papers then, she listed her domicile as being in the 5300 block of Stillwater Drive in New Orleans East — the same address she claimed last year.
It’s unclear whether any other elected officials in the state have faced criminal prosecution for allegedly lying about their home addresses, although many candidates have faced court challenges to their residency. It also appears rare that a judge facing criminal charges has remained on the bench, at least for long.
Released by Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter on a recognizance bond, King returned to the bench early this month, with no sign that the state Judiciary Commission plans to take any action against her pending the outcome of the criminal case. That body, however, operates in secret.
Roby said the Slidell house was an investment for King and is where her twin sister lives. King’s voter registration in Orleans Parish clearly reflects a rightful claim to being domiciled in New Orleans, Roby said last week.
“The issue for me is where was her residence for voting in an election, doing her civic duty,” he said.
Judges must be domiciled in the parish or district where they serve for at least a year prior to election, under the state constitution.
Roby said he didn’t know whether King ever lived at the Slidell house. But one neighbor who lives across the street said King clearly lived there at least since 2009.
That’s when Erica Snyder moved in, she said.
“It was pretty obvious she was living here. I knew her by name. It was ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye.’ Always very cordial and friendly. We never sat down to have a conversation.”
Snyder, 27, stood in her driveway with her 6-year-old son one afternoon this week, wearing a T-shirt that read, “Fear God. Hunt Ducks. Love Your Neighbor.”
She said King didn’t move away until last summer, after her surprise election victory. By then, the TV news trucks and a private investigator hired to snoop around the block of modest one-story homes during a contentious campaign had left, Snyder said.
“She didn’t move until after we saw it on the news last year,” Snyder said. “We had the pool up in the back.”
The assessor’s records show that King filed last year to remove the homestead exemption retroactively for 2011 and 2012. Roby said she has paid back her gains from claiming the exemption, which — with some exceptions — allows eligible homeowners to pay no taxes on the first $75,000 of the value of their property.
The request to remove the exemption came in late April 2013, days after complaints surfaced over King’s residency.
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office declined to detail its case against King, saying only that it first received a complaint against her in April 2013, prior to the May 4 runoff in which King beat out former Jefferson Parish prosecutor Doug Hammel in her fifth try for public office.
King won the right to fill out the term at Juvenile Court of Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier, who won a seat on the Criminal District Court bench. King must run again this year to hold her seat.
“Since this case remains active and ongoing, we cannot comment at this time,” said Laura Gerdes, a spokeswoman for Caldwell’s office, in an email.
Caldwell’s office said it took up the case after Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who had endorsed Hammel in the race, recused his office. But, at least officially, that recusal came only two weeks ago, in a letter signed by First Assistant DA Graymond Martin.
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, said Martin wrote the letter at the attorney general’s request.
Attorney Cynthia Samuel, a rival who lost in the 2013 primary, first raised the issue of King’s residency to authorities in an April 9, 2013, letter addressed to Cannizzaro. She copied the letter to Caldwell, then-interim U.S. Attorney Dana Boente and the secretary of state’s election compliance division.
Why nearly a year passed before Caldwell’s office secured an indictment from an Orleans Parish grand jury remains unclear.
This week, Criminal District Court Chief Judge Benedict Willard wrote a letter to Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, asking the state’s highest court to appoint an ad hoc judge to preside over King’s case. All of the criminal court judges have recused themselves “since the defendant is known to the judges professionally and/or personally,” Willard wrote.