It took five tries for Yolanda King to finally win a judgeship, and less than an hour for a jury to find she had lied to get it.
King, who won a surprise runoff victory in May 2013 for a seat on the bench in New Orleans Juvenile Court, was convicted Tuesday of filing false public records and violating the state election code. A jury of three women and three men found that King’s claim to a New Orleans domicile on a sworn candidate statement in February 2013 was bogus, convinced by evidence that for years she claimed a homestead exemption at a house she bought in 2006 in Slidell.
King, 58, is believed to be the first in the state to face criminal prosecution for what is a common allegation against political hopefuls: Fudging a home address to get around the state constitution, which says judges must have been domiciled in the parish or district where they serve for at least a year prior to an election.
King sat silently at the defense table after ad hoc Judge Michael Kirby read the verdict in an Orleans Parish courtroom. She faces a maximum five-year prison sentence on the false public records charge, and two years maximum on the second count.
Kirby, presiding over the case after all 12 Orleans Parish criminal court judges recused themselves, set a Dec. 3 sentencing date.
The jury failed to accept King’s repeated claims that she legitimately called New Orleans home when she ran and was being victimized by what her attorney, Clarence Roby Jr., called “nasty, dirty politics.”
King has long alleged that a political operative of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro threatened her with ruin if she refused to drop out of the runoff against the DA’s choice, former Jefferson Parish prosecutor Doug Hammel. King ultimately beat Hammel, carrying 54 percent of the vote on a shoestring campaign budget.
King claimed she went to the FBI and wired up to capture the threats on tape. FBI Special Agent Malcolm Bezet acknowledged on the witness stand that he investigated her allegations and made recordings. But Kirby halted questioning about what was on the tapes, and Bezet said his inquiry ended a few months later without any charges filed.
“This whole case is about politics,” Roby told the jury. “It wasn’t about whether or not she’s domiciled in Orleans Parish. This woman was threatened by people telling her they’re going to destroy her life, and voila.”
Cannizzaro has dismissed the allegations of political motives, noting that his office recused itself and left the prosecution to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office.
Over a single swift day of testimony, Assistant Attorney General Sonceree Smith Clark focused on the candidate qualifying form that King signed on Feb. 13, 2013, listing a domicile address in the 5300 block of Stillwater Drive in New Orleans.
At the same time, King maintained a homestead exemption she applied for several months after she bought a house in 2006 on Chancer Lane in Slidell. King only later dropped the tax break and paid the money back. By then, a private investigator had been talking to neighbors of both addresses and photographing King’s comings and goings from the Slidell house.
Kirby agreed Tuesday that the private investigator, former Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Deputy John Carroll, by law didn’t have to reveal his client. State candidate spending records indicate that a third rival in the Juvenile Court race, Cynthia Samuel, paid for his services that year.
Carroll’s work proved key to the prosecution’s case. King got no help from the grudging testimony of Jimmy Bobb, the man who lives in the New Orleans house where King claimed she domiciled.
Bobb, who had lived there with one of King’s sisters, had refused early on to talk to a state investigator, and he offered vague answers on the witness stand. Clark, the state prosecutor, asked the judge to let her treat Bobb as a hostile witness even before he opened his mouth.
Bobb testified that King had lived with him at the Stillwater Drive house with “for awhile, possibly a year, maybe more.”
“When did she move in there?” Clark asked.
“I don’t recall.”
“When did she move from there?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Did she have a home in any other place?”
“I don’t know.”
Later, Clark described Bobb to the jury as “the biggest bold-faced liar you’ve ever seen.”
Questions about King’s residency first erupted in a political flier from Hammel days before the runoff. The flier showed a photo of a vacant lot on Bundy Road in New Orleans, the address on King’s driver’s license until she abruptly changed it in spring 2013.
Roby argued that King lost the Bundy Road home in the flooding after Hurricane Katrina and never got around to changing her license. She had listed the address in prior runs for public office.
Clark told the jury that King was “trying to mop up the lie she had already been caught in.”
Carroll, the private investigator, said the verdict validated that “this isn’t a political war. It really was an illegal act, and it was the documentation that put the nail in the coffin.”
Clark declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Caldwell’s office.
Still unclear was why it took state prosecutors almost a year after King’s election-day victory to secure a grand jury indictment against her. Most candidate residency challenges are adjudicated prior to elections.
King was originally elected to fill out the term of Tracey Flemings-Davillier, who won a seat on the criminal court bench. Following King’s indictment in March 2014, the Louisiana Supreme Court suspended her from the bench pending the case’s outcome. Mayor Mitch Landrieu then launched a failed legal bid to have her seat eliminated. In the maelstrom, voters tossed King from her seat last fall. She placed third in a race that Desiree Cook-Calvin won last December.
Roby lamented the rulings that cut short his questioning of the FBI agent and Carroll, undermining his argument that King’s prosecution was political. Jail time for King would be overkill, Roby said.
“The damage has been done,” he said. “The damage to her professional reputation, the fact she was an incumbent who ran for re-election and lost. The fact you had the mayor trying to get rid of the seat. How much more needs to be done?”
Samuel, who first brought a complaint about King’s residency to state officials, was on vacation Tuesday. Hammel, the man King bested in the runoff, declined to comment on the verdict.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.