Judge rules sole challenger to DA Leon Cannizzaro can stay in race _lowres

Lon Burns

Lionel “Lon” Burns, the only candidate challenging New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro in the Nov. 4 election, has persuaded a Civil District Court judge to let him stay in the race.

Ruling that Burns met all of the legal requirements to run, Judge Tiffany Chase on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit that challenged his eligibility on the grounds that he had not filed all of his state income tax returns for the past five years, as required by law.

“The facts presented to this court suggest that when Mr. Burns qualified for office, he certified to the best of his knowledge that he had in fact filed his taxes,” Chase said in a written opinion.

The challenge came from Anthony Russo, a former Criminal District Court magistrate judge who is a friend of Cannizzaro’s. Burns said the challenge amounted to a political attack coordinated by Cannizzaro’s office.

“They don’t have clean hands in this,” he said, adding in an email that Cannizzaro is trying to “win at any and all costs.”

“God will continue to show himself strong against Leon Cannizzaro through me,” he said.

In a written statement, Bill Schultz, a consultant on Cannizzaro’s campaign, fired back.

“Mr. Burns’ baseless and frivolous accusation of the DA attempting to assassinate Mr. Burns’ character is outrageous and just another obvious grab for headlines,” he said. “Mr. Burns has done a good enough job of that on his own with his comedic performance on the campaign trail.”

During a hearing last week, it was revealed that Graymond Martin, a top assistant to Cannizzaro, sent the Louisiana Department of Revenue the initial public-records request about Burns’ tax returns. Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro, said Martin did so on his own time.

Bowman himself has been watching the lawsuit closely, at one point conferring with Russo’s attorneys during a recess Thursday. He said he was acting as an observer and not in an official work capacity.

Cannizzaro, speaking after an unrelated news conference, said he did not ask Russo to bring the challenge, though he acknowledged the two have contact. “I do talk to him,” he said. “I am friends with him. I do not deny that.”

Russo didn’t attend the hearing nor respond to requests for comment. His attorneys said they intend to appeal Thursday’s ruling.

Chase’s decision reversed her own ruling from last week.

She initially tossed Burns from the ballot after a one-day hearing at which an official from the Louisiana Department of Revenue testified that he could find no record of Burns having filed his state income taxes. Chase declined to give Burns an extension that he requested so he could call his tax preparer to the stand.

But the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal vacated that decision this week, ruling Chase had violated Burns’ due process rights by refusing to give him more time and remanding the case back to her court.

The tax preparer, Monica Jackson, testified Thursday that she put Burns’ previously unfiled tax returns for 2010 through 2013 in an envelope, drove them to a post office on Louisiana Avenue and mailed them last month.

Burns entered into evidence “a certificate of mailing” that he said proved they had been sent.

Attorneys for Russo questioned the authenticity of the document and the credibility of Jackson’s narrative.

Under cross-examination, Jackson admitted she couldn’t remember whether she had personally mailed the returns.

She said she drove to the post office, but it was likely one of her employees who mailed the returns and filled in the certificate of mailing.

Though Burns prevailed in court Thursday, he may still have tax issues that could dog him during the campaign.

Public records show he has a lien on his home for unpaid federal taxes of about $163,000. Burns said that figure is only an IRS estimate, adding that his actual debt, which he is in the process of paying off, is considerably less. He declined to give a specific figure.

Editor’s note: This story was changed Sept. 12 to clarify that District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro denied asking Anthony Russo to challenge Lon Burns’ eligibility.