The race for St. Bernard Parish district attorney doesn’t lack for characters, or character assassinations.
One candidate, Glenn Diaz, claims he “just might be the toughest prosecutor in America,” yet he admits he almost never pushes cases to trial and will cut a defendant slack if you “got some people behind you and you made a mistake.”
A self-described “land junkie,” Diaz gobbled up plots from Nicaragua to Wyoming to Canada during his 35 years as the front-line prosecutor in St. Bernard, where he swallowed $12.5 million in debt when his local metal business drowned in Hurricane Katrina. He said he paid it all back with interest after striking oil on land in Iberville Parish.
Another candidate, Perry Nicosia, says he quit his job as a 34th Judicial District Court judge to run for district attorney after witnessing a pattern of rampant case dismissals that he claims Diaz and other prosecutors have fostered under the longest-serving DA in the state, Jack Rowley, who is stepping down after 35 years.
Nicosia, however, faces criticism from Diaz over a pending federal racketeering lawsuit that names his two former law partners, Clerk of Court Randy Nunez and Lance Licciardi, in an alleged extortion scheme over debris removal work after the storm, with alleged kickbacks cut by check to a firm that Nicosia set up and co-owned.
The third candidate, Michael Gorbaty, is doing his guarded best to fly above the target range of his vitriolic rivals, citing a 22-year U.S. Air Force career and asking voters to “Elect a Vet” on signs that pepper the parish. But questions surround his credentials. After more than four years in the District Attorney’s Office, Gorbaty’s trial experience is nil — a fact he chalks up to a system in which Diaz controlled the trial action and he never got a chance.
The election is Nov. 4. If a runoff is needed, it will be held Dec. 6. Early voting began Tuesday and continues through Oct. 28.
The race to replace Rowley, the only district attorney the 34th Judicial District has ever known, pits the three lawyers in a fight to lead an office of eight part-time prosecutors in one of the region’s least crime-prone parishes. In some years, St. Bernard sees no murders. Drug and sex crimes are more common menaces in a parish where the specter of spillover from violence-plagued New Orleans tends to rile the populace.
Diaz knows that attitude well, serving up red-meat campaign platters that warn, “Cross our parish line, commit a crime, you WILL do the time.”
But Diaz, 63, also is known as a willing deal-maker, and he’s been remarkably choosy in picking cases to take to trial. Just four criminal jury trials have been conducted in St. Bernard since the start of 2010, including one that ended this year with a hung jury and another in which an appeals court tossed out a conviction in a rape case, finding the judge botched the jury instructions.
To be sure, defendants and their attorneys may be loath to go to trial and face the parish’s conviction-friendly jury pool. Diaz said he’s lost only two cases since he took the job in 1979, after political backbiting led St. Bernard and Plaquemines voters to split the parishes into separate judicial districts.
“I’ve always told everyone that I only try people who are just crazy enough to go to trial,” he said.
Despite the qualified “toughest in America” claim — “They call me ‘the hangman’ sometimes in the jail,” he said — Diaz acknowledges a soft side. As an example, he mentioned recently dismissing a criminal charge against a friend’s sister to save her career.
“I looked at her as a person. Maybe someone else would have looked at her as a statistic. It’s not black and white. It’s different shades of gray. I understand human frailty, and I understand people need a break sometimes,” said Diaz, who says he essentially works for free, having years ago maxed out his retirement pay.
“If you’re a first-time kid with drugs and your parents are there and send you to college — you want to be a doctor or lawyer or engineer — I’m going to try to help. But look, if you gang-rape a grandmother, no, I don’t feel sorry for those folks.”
Nicosia has plastered his campaign literature with statistics and pie charts that suggest Diaz seeks lighter shades of gray far too often while leading prosecutions in an office that dismisses the vast bulk of gun and sex crime cases while logging a paltry conviction rate for serious felons.
Nicosia’s numbers are notably skewed, however, by the fact that in St. Bernard, each charge counts as a separate case. A deal in which a defendant pleads guilty, for instance, to two of 20 felony counts might net him decades behind bars. But under Nicosia’s math, the conviction rate would appear as 10 percent.
Also, unlike other jurisdictions, Rowley’s office accepts all cases brought to it by the Sheriff’s Office, leading to a higher rate of later dismissals on unprovable charges.
Still, Nicosia claims that by any measure, the office comes up short, threatening the safety of parish residents. He calls the lack of criminal trials in St. Bernard “mind-boggling” and chides Diaz for his tough-on-crime posture.
“He’s probably the worst in Louisiana for sure,” said Nicosia, 47, who served for about four years as a judge. “We have a threat-of-jury-trial system with no jury trials. There’s no leverage. Nobody is buying it anymore.”
On one thing Diaz and Nicosia seem to agree: The office needs to begin screening more cases to weed out bum arrests.
“We need to make sure we’re not making criminals out of somebody who shouldn’t be, or letting people out on the streets who are,” Nicosia said.
They also agree, along with Gorbaty, that the five judges in the district need to schedule more trial dates. As it stands, each judge sets a trial day every few months, leaving dockets swelling and prosecutors hard-pressed not to dismiss cases or strike deals to ease the docket.
Nicosia said he wants to triple the amount of time set aside for trials in the parish. He also said he wants to limit prosecutors’ outside law work, mainly by pushing them harder.
“It’s a system of convenience,” he said. “It’s lackadaisical, almost like a community that’s not used to serious criminals.”
Diaz and Gorbaty “are both working in an office that is broken at its core,” Nicosia claims.
Gorbaty, 60, stands alone in his pledge not to attack his rivals, though he has challenged Nicosia’s portrayal of the DA’s Office, noting that judges hold the final say over plea deals. At the same time, Gorbaty has gently criticized the lack of trials.
“You always have to show defense attorneys and their clients that you’re unafraid to go to trial and that you are prepared and ready to go to trial. And the way you do that is by doing that,” he said. “Certainly once I get into office, there probably will be more trials, and I think there will be more trials because of how I’m going to set up the office.”
A native of Chalmette who returned home after his military career to practice law, Gorbaty switched party affiliations in 2012, from Democrat to Republican. His brother, David Gorbaty, is a former state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal judge and volunteers as chief administrative officer for the parish, while his nephew Nathan is a parish councilman.
He counts Rowley as a mentor but said he would run the DA’s Office differently.
For one thing, he said, he would assign prosecutors to court divisions, rather than specific tasks, so they can handle cases from start to finish, and detectives, victims and witnesses all would know who’s in charge.
“I’m not going to say anything negative about how Mr. Rowley ran the office, but I’m not Mr. Rowley. I’m Mr. Gorbaty. Today’s time, I think, requires us to do it that way,” he said.
Gorbaty boasts a range of civic involvements and touts leadership skills burnished in the military. His vision, he said, includes launching a formal diversion program for first-time nonviolent offenders and a more structured victim assistance program.
“The person you put in this powerful position has to be somebody that you can trust, that won’t abuse the power, that will do what’s right,” he said. “I’ve spent my entire life earning people’s trust. This is what I was meant to do.”
Except, said Diaz, that he’s ill-prepared for the job.
“Mike Gorbaty is a nice guy. He’s a sweetheart,” Diaz said. “At least Mike can say he’s stepped in a criminal courtroom before. He does traffic tickets. He’s done arraignments. Now, my cat can do arraignments.”
Diaz, though, reserves most of his ire for his other opponent, saying Nicosia “would have gotten more criminal experience if he sat home and watched ‘Law & Order.’ ” He calls Nicosia’s allegations a deceptive and dangerous ploy.
“Let me tell you what this boy has done, Mr. Nicosia. He put his fancy leaflet out, and (as a result) you can bet some creep, some pervert, some sexual predator is going to think they have a 95 percent chance they’re going to get set free, and that’s just a lie,” Diaz said.
“He’s full of s***. Not everyone that is accused of a crime is guilty. Perry would have you believe that every case number is a solid case beyond a reasonable doubt. That just shows how naive and inexperienced he is.”
After prosecuting almost every criminal trial in the parish for more than three decades, Diaz said his plan as DA includes making all of the prosecutors in the office trial attorneys.
In attacking Nicosia, Diaz points to a civil racketeering case filed in 2012 in which a debris removal contractor from Mississippi claims Nunez and Licciardi shook him down for “protection money.” The lawsuit claims the extorted payments were made by check to St. Bernard Debris Removal, a company that Nicosia registered in May 2006, with Nicosia, Licciardi and Nunez as officers.
Unlike Licciardi and Nunez, however, Nicosia is not named in the suit, and neither is the company. Nicosia claims he was a “silent partner” in the operation, and he dismisses the allegations, saying the company never profited.
State campaign filings from Oct. 6 show that Diaz had poured $61,000 of his own money into his campaign, while Gorbaty had raised $30,000 and Nicosia had drawn nearly $60,000 in contributions.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.