After a six-year run that has included two capital murder cases and a featured spot on the television show “America’s Most Wanted,” St. John the Baptist Parish District Attorney Tom Daley is asking voters for another term in the Nov. 4 election.
But Daley, 61, who was a judge before winning his current post in 2008, faces competition from two challengers: Bridget Dinvaut, one of his assistant district attorneys and chairwoman of the Southern University Board of Supervisors, and Geri Broussard Baloney, a LaPlace lawyer who lost a 2002 race for the district attorney’s job.
Both challengers say crime in St. John is a growing concern, and they lay some blame on the District Attorney’s Office for not keeping habitual offenders behind bars. They’re touting ideas such as creating a 24-hour hotline for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, aggressively prosecuting habitual criminals and creating specialized units of lawyers for prosecuting major crimes.
Daley, though, says he has sought lengthy sentences for repeat offenders and plans to continue doing so, as well as working to reduce the length of time for criminal proceedings, upgrading office equipment and working to counsel youths about avoiding alcohol and drugs.
The office has a $2 million budget and about 40 people on staff, including 12 lawyers.
Daley, a LaPlace resident who declares no party affiliation, said the greatest challenge during his first term has been prosecuting capital cases against two anti-government extremists accused of gunning down two St. John Sheriff’s Office deputies in 2012. “The fact that we’re facing 300 pretrial motions in a criminal case makes it challenging,” he said.
Two of the men awaiting trial in that case face the possibility of execution if convicted of killing Deputies Brandon Nielsen and Jeremy Triche during a shootout at a LaPlace mobile home park. Seven people were initially charged in the shooting; some of them have ties to the Sovereign Citizens, a loose-knit, anti-government extremist group described by the FBI as domestic terrorists. Three still await trial; three pleaded guilty as accessories, and one was absolved of any role in the shooting.
During his term, Daley said, the District Attorney’s Office has undergone significant technological upgrades and “jumped into the current century.” Staff now have laptop computers and email addresses, and computer software is more compatible with other area law enforcement agencies, making court records readily available.
Daley spent 18 years as a judge on the Louisiana 5th Circuit Court of Appeal and the 40th Judicial District Court before his 2008 election. He beat Kerry Brown, a former assistant district attorney, capturing 55 percent of the vote to succeed longtime parish District Attorney John Crum.
In the past five years, the District Attorney’s Office prosecuted more than 2,300 felony cases. It has collected more than $21 million in court fines, making it largely self-financed, and transferred almost $620,000 to the parish in that time.
“As district attorney, I am intimately familiar with the arrests and the proceedings that occurred over the last six years,” Daley said, adding that he believes he’s “better equipped to manage the process” moving forward than his opponents.
Daley said he was surprised to learn that Dinvaut would run against him, but he said they’ve “maintained a cordial relationship” since she took a leave of absence from his office. “She told me she was going to do it and wanted to remain friends,” he said. “Nobody’s taken any cheap shots yet, so hopefully we’ll get through the rest of the campaign without that happening.”
Though Daley underwent surgery last year to remove a brain tumor, he said that after “some period of convalescence and treatment every quarter,” he has been given a clean bill of health. His doctor’s take, Daley said, was that “I’m doing very well, so whatever I’m doing, keep doing it, just don’t overdo it.”
Prior to her leave of absence, Dinvaut, 52, had worked for Daley as an assistant district attorney since 2010 while also maintaining a private legal practice in LaPlace that focuses mostly on employment law.
Dinvaut, a Democrat who lives in LaPlace, graduated from Southern University at New Orleans and received her law degree from the Southern University Law Center.
She said her extensive law enforcement background has given her “a proven record as a crime fighter” and prepared her to become the parish’s top prosecutor.
Dinvaut worked in the St. John Sheriff’s Office from 1986 until 1994, then spent eight years as a federal law enforcement officer in Louisiana and Florida. In 2005, she began practicing law at the New Orleans-based firm of Lemle & Kelleher before joining Daley’s office in 2010.
In that capacity, Dinvaut said, she has worked misdemeanor cases and prosecuted drug offenses, and she supervised the District Attorney’s Office’s efforts in the drug court program. She described her background as having given her “a very practical skill set that I think is necessary to completely and efficiently administer the duties of district attorney.”
The St. John Sheriff’s Office made 2,753 arrests in 2013, up from 2,578 in 2012 and 2,680 in 2011. That increase shows that “crime is spilling over, and we’ve got to do something different,” Dinvaut said. “I know the criminal justice system not because I read it in a law book, and that’s something that no other candidate in this race can bring to the table.”
Her parents both served in the military, and Dinvaut said that has inspired her to serve her community. “That was kind of the impetus for it,” she said. “It’s just part of who I am, where I saw a need, and I did see a need when I took a leave of absence.”
If elected, Dinvaut said, she would work to strengthen ties between the District Attorney’s Office and the community at large, aggressively prosecute violent and habitual offenders, and establish specialized units for handling major crimes.
If she’s not elected, Dinvaut isn’t sure of her next step, having put herself in the awkward spot of running to replace her boss. “I don’t know what to expect,” she said. “I don’t have any expectation. My full focus is strictly on winning this race and serving my community.”
Geri Broussard Baloney
Baloney, 54, is making her third run for public office in the past dozen years. Before that, in 1996, she spent a year as a law clerk in Edgard and then went into private practice, including some contract work as an attorney for the Public Defender’s Office.
She said the District Attorney’s Office can do more to reach out to local residents, and if elected, she would work toward strengthening the parish’s truancy program. She has handled cases throughout the metro area, she said — both criminal work, typically drug-related cases, and civil work, including personal injury cases.
Baloney sees herself as something of an outsider.
“I think it’s interesting that I’m running against the current DA and his assistant,” she said. “It tells me that there’s a strong push to maintain the status quo.”
In her 2002 campaign, Baloney lost in a two-way race with Crum, the incumbent. In 2007, she finished second in a six-way primary for the District 57 seat in the state House of Representatives, losing the runoff to former St. John Parish President Nickie Monica.
Baloney, a Democrat who lives in Garyville, graduated from Southern University at New Orleans and obtained her law degree from Loyola.
Her husband, Carl Baloney Sr., runs the Baloney Funeral Home in LaPlace.
This summer, Baloney was the subject of a hearing by the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board, which was investigating allegations that she represented two clients in the same proceeding, overcharged for costs and accepted a settlement on behalf of her clients without their approval. The board suspended her from practicing law for six months but suspended the sentence if she completes a one-year probation period without any issues.
Baloney described the incident mostly as a misunderstanding. She said the case was at least 5 years old before it resurfaced again this summer and that she resolved the issues by paying an $8,000 settlement.
Baloney said she thinks the District Attorney’s Office could benefit from fresh blood, not only at the top but also by recruiting young lawyers fresh out of law school.
If she wins in November, she said, she would work to implement programs to prevent elderly residents from being targeted for scams.
“It’s very personal to me, because I know the burden that it places on the entire family when others have to step up to the plate to fill the void,” she said.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.