After insisting for months that it’s practically impossible to comb through all of the office's case files to find copies of "fake subpoenas" issued by prosecutors, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s staff is now doing just that.

About 100 employees are pitching in to search 100,000 paper files and 50,000 electronic files for “fake subpoenas” and material witness warrants sought by the New Orleans City Council, according to the DA’s Office.

The DA has been under pressure to provide records on the extent of the practices. Last month, Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese gave Cannizzaro 30 days to provide The Lens, a nonprofit news website, some of the fake subpoenas sent in the past two years.

Cannizzaro spokesman Ken Daley said the office intends to comply with the judge’s order.

The Lens first reported on prosecutors’ use of bogus subpoenas in April. The documents — which were marked “Subpoena” and threatened jail time for failing to comply, but were not approved by judges and had no legal force — were used to pressure witnesses and crime victims to appear at the DA’s Office for private meetings with prosecutors.

Under state law, prosecutors can compel witnesses and victims to come in for such meetings, but they first must get approval from a judge. The DA's Office did not do that. Cannizzaro discontinued the practice of sending such documents as soon as the tactic was publicized; he has since faced three public records lawsuits and one federal civil rights lawsuit related to it.

The DA's use of material witness warrants to arrest victims and witnesses who allegedly refuse to cooperate with prosecutors has also come under scrutiny. The use of those warrants is legal. 

The day Reese ruled, the City Council sent Cannizzaro a letter with a laundry list of things it wanted to know, including how many cases the office accepts for prosecution, its conviction rate and how many juvenile cases it transfers to adult court.

The council also demanded to know how many times assistant district attorneys used “DA subpoenas” — which is what the office called the phony subpoenas — and material witness warrants between 2014 and 2016.

This month, the DA’s Office delivered boxes to City Hall containing about 4,400 pages that, according to a letter from Cannizzaro, answer most of the council’s questions — but not those about fake subpoenas and material witness warrants.

It will take about six months to compile those records, Cannizzaro said in the letter, in part because he doesn’t want the search to get in the way of employees’ normal duties.

Assistant district attorneys, investigators and clerical workers “are being asked to devote additional hours to this project during the week and on weekends,” spokesman Daley said.

Boxes of old case files are being delivered from a storage facility, searched and returned to storage because of limited space in the DA’s offices, he said.

In June, The Lens reported on a case in which a prosecutor obtained a warrant for an alleged domestic violence victim in part because the woman did not obey a fake subpoena. However, prosecutors dropped the charges against the defendant before the woman could be arrested.

In October, the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the DA’s Office for jailing witnesses and issuing fake subpoenas. Those groups claim to have found nine additional cases in which prosecutors obtained warrants for victims or witnesses who ignored fake subpoenas. In six of those cases, according to the suit, they were jailed.

The Lens filed a public records request in April for fake subpoenas issued between January 2016 and April 2017.

The DA’s Office denied the request, saying the only way to find the documents would be to manually search thousands of case files, which was too much work. The Lens sued, and at an October court hearing, the DA’s Office made the same argument.

Assistant District Attorney Donna Andrieu testified that The Lens’ records requests didn’t seek files in a way that matched how the DA’s Office keeps them. The office organizes its files by case, she said. “We don’t have a filing cabinet full of DA subpoenas — or any other document.”

In his ruling, Reese said the DA’s Office must “eat the elephant one bite at a time.” He said the first batch should be handed over within 30 days, or by the end of November. The written judgment was finalized this week.

Reese did not grant The Lens’ request for fake subpoenas issued in cases that remain open, noting that open files at the DA’s Office are not subject to public review. 

In a news release last week, Cannizzaro’s office said staff members had not found a single bogus subpoena in its review of the first 100 boxes of case files. However, in a court hearing this month regarding a different public records lawsuit, Assistant District Attorney Scott Vincent said he wasn’t sure that each fake subpoena had even made it into a case file.