Four of the five lawyers who are vying for the top law enforcement job in St. Tammany and Washington parishes appeared Tuesday night in the first forum of the campaign for 22nd Judicial District Attorney. The election is Nov. 4.
Robert Rees, who qualified to run at the last minute, declined the invitation from Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany.
But the other candidates — Alan Black, Roy Burns, Warren Montgomery and Brian Trainor — came to a crowded John Davis Recreation Center in Lacombe to make the case for their candidacies.
Walter Reed, who is under investigation by a federal grand jury, announced in July that he would not seek a sixth term as DA, and the four candidates strove to distance themselves from Reed and to talk tough about public corruption.
Black pointed to his hiring of Dan Kyle, a former state legislative auditor, as evidence that he plans to reform the office. He also pledged to assign someone to investigate and prosecute anyone whom the Legislative Auditor’s Office finds has committed wrongdoing.
Trainor said he would develop a white-collar crime unit that would focus on public corruption and identity theft, which he said is expanding on the north shore.
Burns promised to hire an inspector general who would be an attorney with subpoena power. “I’m not afraid to prosecute anyone who does wrong,” he said.
Montgomery, who touted his experience as a federal prosecutor, said he went after big-time criminals then and would do the same as DA.
Moderator Don Dubuc asked the candidates how they would handle recusals. Reed has been criticized for recusing his office from prosecuting a case so he could pursue a private civil case against the defendant.
Trainor said that recusing the office should be done only to further justice and not as a tool to create leverage over a defendant, while Burns said the office should recuse itself more frequently because there are so many conflicts of interest.
Black downplayed the issue, saying the real problem is that there are too many old cases, denying victims relief and closure.
Montgomery also stressed the need for speedy trials, saying that is especially important for defendants sitting in jail.
The candidates were asked about the current office’s reputation as “St. Slammany,” a term that Reed embraced as evidence that he is tough on criminals.
“You can’t incarcerate your way out of crime,” Burns said, promising to be unmerciful to those who hurt others but to give a second chance “to those who have only hurt themselves.”
Montgomery said the DA’s Office has to do what it can to access state and federal funds, which Dubuc suggested are tied to prosecutions. “The name on the building isn’t the St. Slammany Center, it’s the Justice Center. ... That is the most important value and direction we will seek,” Montgomery said.
Trainor, who took a leave of absence as chief deputy of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office on Monday, said he would be tough and fair but also compassionate, giving first-time nonviolent offenders a change to pay their debt and return to society.
Black said he supports alternative courts to reduce recidivism.
Burns said he rejects the term “St. Slammany.”
“Why throw people away when it’s not necessary?” he said.
Dubuc also quizzed the candidates on where they stand on term limits. Burns struck the most pro-limits stance, saying he would serve only one term if elected. Montgomery said he would support a two-term limit, and Black said he thought three terms would make sense. Trainor said he does not oppose term limits but would serve as long as the voters would have him.
While eschewing the “St. Slammany” label, the candidates sounded similar notes on the need to keep drugs in check.
Trainor said people with addictions don’t belong in jail long-term and can be helped on the front end by screening. If they’re not dealers, they can go into a diversion program and get the treatment they need, he said.
Black also said he believes in second chances but that it’s essential to be tough on drugs, which he said are responsible for 80 percent of violent crime. “Do not think we are immune to this stuff” in St. Tammany, he said.
Burns said he would be tough on drug crime, which he suggested is imported to the north shore from New Orleans. He said he would like to put a sign on the twin spans to let drug dealers from eastern New Orleans know that St. Tammany “will put you away for a long time.”
Trainor said he had never been accused of being soft on crime. As chief deputy, he said, he’s heard drug dealers tell their friends, “Do not bring that stuff into St. Tammany Parish. They don’t play over here.”
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.