Jefferson DA says he takes pains to avoid conflicts of interest _lowres

Paul Connick

St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed’s lucrative side work has been making headlines in recent months, but he is hardly the only high-profile Louisiana district attorney prosecuting crimes for the state while earning a six-figure income from his private practice.

Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick is co-owner of the Connick & Connick law firm with his brother Peter. The firm raked in $514,707 from government contracts in 2012, including $267,544 from Jefferson Parish, according to financial disclosure forms Connick filed with the state.

Connick said in an interview Monday that the firm has taken pains to avoid conflicts of interest and that he has essentially been a passive owner of the firm since he was elected district attorney in 1996. He said he devotes no time to drumming up business for Connick & Connick and is not involved in running its day-to-day operations or litigating its cases.

“I’m not actively involved with clients,” Connick said. “I don’t make court appearances; I don’t take depositions. … My focus is on the DA’s Office, and it has been since I was elected.”

That distinction is important, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, who has been critical of Reed’s side work as a civil attorney.

That side work includes a reported $30,000-a-year contract with a parish hospital that hospital administrators view as being part of Reed’s role as district attorney but which Reed has said he does as a private lawyer. Hospital officials have not responded to questions about whether checks for Reed’s legal work are made out to him personally, to the DA’s Office or to his private law practice.

Reed’s private legal work also has created at least one conflict with his elected office: He had to recuse his office in 2011 from the criminal prosecution of a truck driver booked with negligence in the death of two women. In that case, Reed represented the family of the victims in a wrongful-death claim that landed the victims a $2.4 million settlement, according to an interview Reed gave to a Pentecostal magazine.

Goyeneche said the fact that Connick’s firm is getting the same types of contracts that it had before he became the DA suggests the firm has actual expertise and is not just relying on political stroke. This makes it different, in his view, from the work Reed does for the parish hospital. Reed has had his side job with the hospital for about 15 years, but it’s not clear he had any expertise in representing hospitals prior to taking it on.

Connick joined the firm that bears his name in the 1970s; it became Connick & Connick in the 1990s, a few years before Connick was elected district attorney.

Goyeneche said he has no qualms with an arrangement in which a district attorney is simply sharing in the profits of a firm he helped establish prior to becoming the DA.

“I think it would be poor leadership if his income from his private law practice was the result of him putting in hours and working those cases,” he said. “I think the distinction is active versus passive involvement on his part.”

Connick agrees and said he takes pains not to shill for his private business.

“If I were hustling business and getting in people’s faces, maybe it would be different, but I don’t,” he said. “It falls where it falls.”

State law allows district attorneys to practice law privately, and the state Ethics Board said a few years after Connick’s 1996 election that the firm could continue to do work for state and local government.

Under ethics laws adopted after Bobby Jindal was elected governor, high-profile officials such as Connick must report all of their sources of income. When the income comes from state or local government entities, they must specify precisely how much money the work generated.

In 2012, the Connick firm’s total haul from government work amounted to $514,707, including $267,544 from Jefferson Parish. That was less than in some earlier years. In fact, Connick’s personal financial disclosure statements to the State Ethics Administration indicate the amount of work Connick & Connick does for the parish has been on the decline in recent years. He said the public contracts make up less than a fifth of the firm’s business.

The firm’s parish work — mostly worker’s compensation and general liability claims — hovered around $1 million a year at the end of the last decade. But it has steadily dropped since 2010, which Connick and Parish Attorney Deborah Foshee attributed to the parish’s decision to move more of its legal work in-house starting in 2011.

The firm’s work for the state’s Office of Risk Management brought in $182,834 in 2008 but has crept upward, to $243,988 in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Connick’s salary as district attorney was $176,014 last year, according to records provided by his office.

Connick declined to compare his private work with that performed by Reed. But in general, he said, he doesn’t think allowing district attorneys to maintain a private practice is inherently problematic.

“If it’s handled properly, I don’t see a problem with it,” he said. “I think you have to be vigilant.”

Filings indicate Paul Connick owns 46 percent of the practice to Peter Connick’s 54 percent. The DA said the firm has five lawyers, two law clerks and one or sometimes two paralegals.

Connick acknowledged that he’s not in the public eye as much as some of his counterparts, something he attributes to the philosophy he brought to the DA’s Office — letting the work speak for itself and respecting the tragic nature of crimes for all involved.

“I could be blowing my horn every day, but I never have,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable doing it.”

Connick is sometimes criticized for spending a lot of time out of the office, though he said he is a more than full-time DA and does a lot of work with the state’s District Attorney Association, which requires trips to Baton Rouge.

“I just know that I’m doing the job and my office is functioning properly,” he said. “And it’s reflected in what we do and how well we do it.”

His brother Pat Connick is a state representative from Marrero.