Two weeks after Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams was acquitted on federal tax evasion charges, he made headlines for another reason: He accepted a side job with the law firm that successfully defended him in his criminal trial.
Williams might not end up joining Schonekas, Evans, McGoey and McEachin after all, his office said last week, after legal questions arose about potential conflicts of interest. Louisiana law forbids DAs “or their law partners” to handle criminal defense work, meaning that Williams’ arrival could force the Schonekas firm to give up a chunk of its business.
But the news prompted some of Williams’ critics to question why the full-time elected prosecutor in perhaps the state’s busiest courthouse would seek a side legal job at all.
Turns out, DAs regularly moonlight. In fact, 30 of Louisiana’s 42 district attorneys maintain a private practice, state reports show.
Experts say the arrangements can present ethical questions if a district attorney’s firm is hired for any reason other than its qualifications. And they said DAs with side practices must closely monitor their caseloads for conflicts of interest.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the nonprofit watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said problems can arise if a DA’s firm were to take on a client who also faced charges in the prosecutor’s district. It could also lead to an ethical gray area if relatives of criminal defendants were to hire the DA’s law firm.
“Unless you really drill down and interview your prospective civil client, there could be conflict bombs in your office,” Goyeneche said.
Williams said he is seeking legal guidance on whether his association with the Schonekas firm would create problems. He told Robin Pittman, chief judge for Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, that his employment with the firm has been put on hold for