A judge on Tuesday disqualified defense attorney Lionel “Lon” Burns in his bid to unseat Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, ruling that Burns failed to prove that he paid his state taxes for four years prior to filing his candidacy papers last month.
Burns, a former Orleans Parish prosecutor, said he “absolutely” would appeal Civil District Court Judge Tiffany Chase’s ruling. He has until Wednesday to do so.
Also on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond won the first round in a bid to knock two of his four challengers out of the race, while Jefferson Parish judicial candidate Angel Varnado beat back a residency challenge.
A pair of Orleans Parish judges ruled that Gary Landrieu and ex-bail bondsman Rufus Johnson, both running for Richmond’s 2nd Congressional District seat, were disqualified because they failed to pay fines to the state Ethics Board for past campaign reporting lapses.
Should those rulings stand up on appeal, the field against Richmond, D-New Orleans, would be narrowed to David Brooks, of New Orleans, and Samuel Davenport, of LaPlace.
Barring a successful appeal from Burns, Cannizzaro will face no competition.
Ruling on a challenge brought by former Magistrate Commissioner Anthony Russo, Chase found that Burns couldn’t prove he’d paid his taxes, as stated on his sworn candidate statement.
Burns claimed that for a long time he didn’t realize he hadn’t filed his state taxes for the years 2010-13, calling it “an oversight we sought to have corrected.”
Anticipating election-season trouble, Burns had a tax preparer get the documents ready, and on Aug. 11 he told her to file them, he testified. “They were going to be mailed and they were going to be filed. That’s her job as a tax preparer,” Burns testified.
But an official with state Department of Revenue Secretary Tim Barfield’s office said the agency had no record of any Burns filings for those years.
The official, Bradley Blanchard, testified that last week he received Russo’s request for public records on Burns’ tax status from Barfield, his boss. It had been sent to Barfield in an email from Cannizzaro’s second-in-command, First Assistant District Attorney Graymond Martin, Blanchard said.
Burns accused Cannizzaro’s office of meddling in an election on the public dime.
“It shows the DA’s Office, they do things under color of law in their capacity as public officials to hurt people running for office,” Burns said after the ruling. “They wanted me out of the race.”
The email to Barfield from Martin did not come from a District Attorney’s Office address, according to Blanchard.
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, said Martin took part of last week off. Bowman said he couldn’t confirm Martin sent the email but that if he did so, he “would have been acting in his capacity as a private citizen.”
Russo said he never spoke to Cannizzaro about his challenge to Burns’ candidacy.
He said he would have challenged Burns over any office he sought. Burns has run before, failing in a 2008 bid to unseat Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter.
In running for office, candidates must swear they have filed their state and federal taxes for the previous five years, or else that they have filed for an extension or were not required to file.
They also must swear they “do not owe any fines, fees or penalties pursuant to the Code of Governmental Ethics.”
That’s where Richmond’s challenges to Johnson and Landrieu proved successful Tuesday in Civil District Court.
Judge Piper Griffin found that Johnson owes more than $2,000 in fines and fees from six different failures to file timely campaign statements when he ran for the Legislature in 1999 and 2003.
Johnson did not show up to defend himself. Later Tuesday, he said he hadn’t been served with the challenge, and he disputed the idea that his candidacy for a federal office could even be challenged in an Orleans Parish court.
“This is some flim-flam stuff,” he said, though he didn’t dispute that he owes the Ethics Board money.
The state election code says a candidacy challenge for a non-statewide election “shall be instituted in the district court for any parish included, in whole or part, in the district for the office the action involves.”
Johnson is the subject of a federal investigation over allegedly illegal, unlicensed bonding activity.
A federal complaint filed in December accused him of using the names and licenses of three other bondsmen and paying off court employees to get inmates out of jail illegally. Federal prosecutors, however, have yet to follow up with formal charges against Johnson, who has a federal drug conviction and a string of unsuccessful campaigns for public office in his past.
Gary Landrieu, who finished a distant second to Richmond two years ago for the 2nd Congressional District seat, said he would appeal Tuesday’s ruling, calling the decision to disqualify him “obviously a railroad project.”
Landrieu — a cousin of Mayor Mitch Landrieu — was not present in court, because he too had not been served, he said later Tuesday.
“Not only that, but in the court proceedings they appointed an attorney to represent me that doesn’t even know who I am,” Landrieu said. “It’s almost unfathomable. Apparently Mr. Richmond just got his friends to throw me out of the election, but we’re going to fix that problem.”
Landrieu said he was only notified Friday that the Ethics Board had assessed him a $700 fine for a late campaign filing from his 2012 bid for Richmond’s seat. He said he has since filed for a waiver.
Civil District Judge Sidney Cates IV ruled Landrieu should be disqualified based on the unpaid fine.
“The congressman believes all the laws should be followed,” said Ernest Jones, an attorney for Richmond.
In Jefferson Parish, meanwhile, Varnado survived a residency challenge in her bid for the Division G spot on the 24th Judicial District Court bench.
Judge Stephen Enright dismissed the challenge filed by Renita Caston Johns after Johns’ attorney, Elaine Appleberry, said she was satisfied that Varnado, who is from Gretna, met the qualifications.
The race to fill the seat of retiring judge Robert Pitre also includes Adrian Adams, of Harvey, and Theresa Miles, of Marrero.
Staff writer Chad Calder contributed to this story. Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.