In the first major policy change of the post-Walter Reed era, 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery has made it clear to his assistant district attorneys that he will keep a tighter rein on their outside civil law work than his predecessor, issuing a memo last week that bans them from taking any new cases while his administration finalizes its policies and procedures.
An employee handbook dealing with this and other matters will be ready for staffers to review and comment on at the end of this month, the memo said.
Reed, who left office last month after 30 years as DA of St. Tammany and Washington parishes, did not have written guidelines for staffers, a fact that all the candidates running to succeed him pointed out and promised to change.
Montgomery never said during the campaign that he would forbid assistant district attorneys from maintaining an outside law practice. Roy Burns was the only candidate in the field vying to replace Reed who went that far.
In his memo, which was dated Thursday, Montgomery said the ban on new cases is temporary and he doesn’t anticipate a permanent outright ban on outside civil practice. However, he has said several times that he plans a higher degree of oversight, with all such work to be reviewed by an internal ethics panel.
Montgomery has said he doesn’t want to prevent staffers from handling “innocuous’’ legal matters but wants to make sure there are no conflicts of interest or other problems.
The memo directed all assistant district attorneys to provide information about any civil cases they are handling at this time to Tony LeMon, head of Montgomery’s civil division, by Friday of this week.
Outside civil practice was an issue on the campaign trail during the fall after Reed chose not to run for re-election amid a federal investigation that appears to be focused on his campaign spending and his work for St. Tammany Parish Hospital under what he has portrayed as a private arrangement.
Reed had a lucrative outside civil practice that sometimes raised questions about potential conflicts of interest. In one case, for example, the DA’s Office recused itself from prosecuting a Texas truck driver for negligent homicide so that Reed could represent the victims’ families in a lucrative civil case.
In addition, the law firm of Harry Pastuszek, one of Reed’s inner circle, was paid about $500,000 a year to represent the St. Tammany Parish School Board, a deal he got through the DA’s Office. His work for the School Board included defending it from civil suits brought by families of boys who were raped at Abney Elementary School by a school janitor whom the DA successfully prosecuted in 2009. That work included taking a deposition from the rapist in which he claimed his innocence.
One legal expert called that apparent conflict of interest “just wrong’’ and said it could potentially raise questions about the validity of the janitor’s conviction.
Pastuszek eventually recused himself from the case, and he retired from the DA’s Office in September.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the new memo shows that Montgomery is giving himself time to figure out the best way to manage this issue and is fulfilling his campaign promise to take a good, long look at it.
District attorneys handle this issue differently across the state, he said. Some don’t allow any outside work by their assistant district attorneys, while others do; there’s also a middle ground in which matters are vetted on a case-by-case basis.
Goyeneche said Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick checks outside work against a database not only for names of defendants but also for witnesses and victims.
That policy applies to all employees, Goyeneche said. If a secretary wants to start a cookie business on the side, the DA would want to know who her partners are.
Montgomery’s memo offers some additional signs that he will be watching outside work more carefully, including the amount of time staffers spend on such work.
“Further, with regard to any present outside civil matters being handled by an assistant district attorney, attendance at any hearing or meetings ... during normal office hours between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. requires a formal leave of absence,” the memo said.
Any exception to the ban on taking new work will be considered on a case-by-case basis by Montgomery, the memo concluded.
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