While four candidates are on the ballot for district attorney of the 22nd Judicial District in the Nov. 4 election, in many ways all four are running against a fifth man: Walter Reed, who has had an iron grip on the DA’s Office for a generation.
As the heat of a federal grand jury probe into his office and finances increased, Reed announced in July that he would not seek a sixth term, unexpectedly opening the door for a new district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington parishes.
Alan Black, Roy Burns, Warren Montgomery and Brian Trainor are vying for an office that has become clouded by public distrust and that has seen visits by FBI agents and members of the legislative auditor’s staff.
Reed, who had not faced an opponent since former U.S. Attorney John Volz challenged him in 1996, casts a large shadow, even in his absence from the ballot.
On the stump, the four candidates, all Republicans, make similar pledges. All say they’ll be full-time district attorneys, in contrast to Reed, who has been criticized for being largely absent from the office. They’ll all give up their private law practices, although by law they are allowed to have them, and, to one degree or another, all promise not to hang on to the position for as long as the current occupant.
All are striving to define themselves not only as the best in the field but as the antithesis of Reed: reformers and agents of change who will restore public confidence in the office, making it more accessible and accountable.
For Black, 56, the District Attorney’s Office has been a longtime goal. The only Washington Parish native in the field, his decades-long private practice has been in Slidell, which he says makes him the candidate with the best grasp on the entire 22nd District.
Black’s sonorous voice is his trademark, and he discussed his election strategy and plans for the office recently like a lawyer preparing for court, flipping through the pages of a huge notebook mounted on an easel.
Independence is the issue people are talking about, he said, and he pointed to his 30-year career as a lawyer in private practice who has never before sought office. He also touted his appointment by the state Supreme Court to fill in as a judge in city courts in Slidell, Bogalusa and Hammond as evidence that he has the temperament to be tough on crime but also to decide who deserves a second chance.
Reed’s office has done a good job of prosecuting hardened criminals, he said, but problems that he characterized as inappropriate spending have hurt the office, a situation he compared with scandals in the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office.
Black has hired former Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle to advise him, and he said Kyle would serve as an adviser to his administration to put changes in place, starting with an audit at the beginning of his term.
“I will know where I stand on the day I take office,” he said. “Internal controls would have prevented many of the things we’re reading about — written policies and procedures. There were no policies and procedures. The office has no built-in credibility now, so the new DA will have to build that credibility back up.’’
He said he would put more emphasis on specialty courts for first-time offenders and ensure that the mentally ill get treatment rather than being returned to the criminal justice system.
Black acknowledges that Reed has been a friend of his, although he’s quick to say the current DA has not endorsed him or given him any money. “I was a friend like everyone else, until we all found out what was going on. It was kind of a shock,’’ he said.
Burns, 65, has had the DA’s Office in his sights for some time, too. The first person to announce his candidacy, Burns jumped in even before Reed bowed out, showing up on the courthouse steps the day of Reed’s announcement to talk to reporters.
He’s been the Reed regime’s most vociferous critic and often elicits smiles and head-shaking among opponents at forums, making claims that verge on the hyperbolic. He’s said at least twice that he is in the “trial attorney hall of fame,” for example. There isn’t one. His promise to serve only one term also has raised his opponents’ eyebrows.
But Burns, the oldest candidate in the race, is all business when he outlines his plans for the office, which he says he knew had become stale 15 years ago. A former assistant district attorney under Marion Farmer, who had been his law partner, Burns says he is the only candidate who has gone through transitions in the office and understands the fear and low morale among employees there now.
He also says he knows what needs to be fixed.
Burns said he would not allow his assistant district attorneys to have outside practices and promises to reduce some of their benefits — a change he said is needed because the office’s clerical staff is underpaid. He also pledges to set his salary at the same amount district judges receive — $140,000 — calling that a symbolic change.
Burns plans to try cases himself and pledges he would lead the first murder case tried by the office in the first six months of his term.
He said he would end “pick and pleas,” in which a plea deal is announced just after a trial has begun, and would reallocate resources to focus on crimes with victims. Unlike under Reed, “There will be no artificial brag of 100 (jury trials) per year,’’ he said.
Burns said he would prosecute cases from arrests made at DWI checkpoints, something Reed has refused to do, and would change the diversion program, which he said costs an offender $5,000 to $10,000 and is the largest funding source for the office. Poor defendants can’t get into the diversion program, he said, and instead of risk analysis, the main criterion for deciding who qualifies for it is the ability to pay.
Like others in the race, he bemoans the technological backwardness of the DA’s Office, but he is aiming to have a paperless office by the end of his term.
“I’m a fix-it man,’’ he said. “I want this job to fix it.’’
Montgomery, 59, a former federal prosecutor who has spent most of his career in private practice, describes going through a process of soul-searching before deciding to seek the office. He points to a placard in his office that quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola and says he wanted to make sure he was running for the right reasons.
His speaking style is similarly deliberative, with pauses to find the right word. Montgomery has run for office before, seeking a judgeship. But he said he didn’t set out to be DA, deciding to run because he viewed the other candidates as part of the “good ol’ boy network.”
Montgomery stresses his experience in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the 1980s, which he says involved felony prosecutions of drug kingpins and their cartels, cases he describes as complex — a level of sophistication he says his opponents lack.
He points to his own record as one of integrity and says prosecutors need to be above reproach. Reed has created questions about the integrity of the office through his actions, Montgomery said, and when the public loses confidence in the people enforcing the law, “that undermines our entire system of justice.’’
While the office seemed to be run efficiently with dockets that moved, Montgomery said there has been a loss of focus in the last 10 years. He pointed to the tough-on-crime nickname “St. Slammany,” which Reed embraced and even used to name an award for the top prosecutor in his office.
“A prosecutor’s role is to seek justice. That’s what a person is supposed to do. He’s not supposed to seek convictions at all costs. He’s not supposed to seek convictions so he can get a certain head count, quota or percentage,’’ Montgomery said. “The name on that building is the Justice Center, and that can be an elusive concept, but I think if you focus on justice, you don’t have to worry about whether people call you ‘St. Slammany’ or not.’’
Montgomery, who has promised to serve only two terms, said he wants to avoid the potential conflicts of interest that can arise from assistant district attorneys having outside practices, but he said it might be necessary to allow lawyers who are paid less to do so. He’ll conduct a study to determine the appropriate salary for himself, he said.
He also pledges to support the conclusions of a St. Tammany Home Rule Charter review commission that is studying the question of whether the DA should continue to provide representation for other governmental bodies.
Trainor, 41, is the only candidate who actually worked for Reed, as chief of the Misdemeanor Division, which carries the largest case load in the office. His eight-year stint as a prosecutor ended when he was hired by St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain. But while others are burnishing their “outsider” bona fides, Trainor earnestly presents himself as the candidate devoted to public service, laying out a résumé that includes a stint in the National Guard as well as a rapid rise to second in command in his four years at the Sheriff’s Office.
Trainor said he planned to run for public office, although he expected Reed to stay in office longer. Although he’s not committing himself to self-imposed term limits, he said he has no desire to stay in office for 30 years.
He demurs at being labeled the front-runner in the race, but he has raised the most money — $329,100 — and has high-profile supporters like the sheriff.
Trainor is more likely to talk about the office’s role in law enforcement and public safety than he is to bash Reed. A recent flier contains the phrase, “We live just minutes from one of America’s most dangerous cities,’’ and Trainor said that’s an issue people want to talk about on the campaign trail.
But the youngest candidate in the race does talk about changes needed like ramping up the technology in an office where employees don’t even have email accounts and there is no electronic sharing of documents. Trainor said he plans to modernize the office and would develop policies and procedures, something the office does not have.
He would not have an outside law practice, he said, but budget realities would make it tough to forbid assistant district attorneys from doing such work. As a newly minted ADA, he said, he made $35,000 — not enough to live on in St. Tammany and raise a family with student loans.
Trainor stresses his administrative experience at the Sheriff’s Office, overseeing larger budgets and more people than the DA’s Office has. “Running a private business is much different than running a public office, the expectations are different. … It’s taxpayers’ money, and they’ve got to buy in,’’ he said.
Trainor rejects claims by opponents that his background hurts his independence. The district attorney and the Sheriff’s Office do have a partnership, he said, but “that partnership doesn’t mean the district attorney is going to rubber-stamp everything that comes through that department.’’
More combative tone
With a little over two weeks left until the primary, the race has developed a more combative tone. Candidates had taken shots at each other during forums, but the tone had been polite.
Last week, however, news surfaced about an unhappy legal client in a personal injury claim who filed a complaint against lawyer Charles Hughes and Trainor, who was co-counsel in the case. That prompted Trainor’s campaign to cry foul, suggesting that his opponents were behind the complaint.
Black, who had represented the disgruntled client, John Hoogacker, in unrelated cases, fired back, accusing Trainor of mud-slinging and taking his own shot at Trainor’s independence. Burns and Montgomery also issued statements criticizing Trainor’s involvement in the personal injury case, calling it a questionable civil case.
With four candidates in the race, a runoff is likely. It would be Dec. 6.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.