After a year, new north shore DA remains popular but faces some major issues

Warren Montgomery’s election as district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington parishes appeared to herald a new era in north shore criminal justice.

For three decades, no political figure in St. Tammany cast as large a shadow as that of his predecessor, Walter Reed, who relished the “St. Slammany” nickname given to the parish for its hard-on-crime reputation and whose clout extended into just about every aspect of the parish’s political life.

But faced with a federal investigation, Reed decided not to run in 2014. And Montgomery, who ran as an outsider candidate, eventually defeated the more establishment-favored Brian Trainor, a victory met with jubilation from reform-minded constituents.

Montgomery — an attorney and businessman who once ran for judge but lost — rode that reformer image to a crest of popularity during his first year in office. A July poll pegged his favorability rating at nearly twice that of the next-highest parish official.

A review of his first year shows that some change has occurred, but battles remain, including some that will put that popularity to the test.

Despite having prevailed in a political dogfight, and succeeding a man with almost unparalleled political capital on the north shore, Montgomery called politics a “venom” that poisons the operation of the justice system. Nonetheless, during his first year, he has not been afraid to bare his political fangs.

He was quickly thrust into the middle of a debate over St. Tammany’s home rule charter, which designates the District Attorney’s Office as the legal representative for all of parish government, including the parish president and Parish Council.

A proposed charter amendment would have allowed the president and council to hire their own attorneys, removing that responsibility from the DA’s Office.

Montgomery said he thought it made sense to give the President’s Office its own attorney, but he balked at the idea that the council should be able to hire its own representation. That provoked the ire of some on the council and led to a heated exchange during an August council meeting, when Montgomery asked the council to delay putting the issue before voters. It refused.

Montgomery continued to oppose the charter amendment, but he said he made a point of not getting personally involved in the legal advice that attorneys in his office were offering to parish officials because if the amendment passed, the whole matter would have been out of his control.

But when parish voters soundly rejected the measure in the fall, Montgomery took it as vindication.

“Once the vote took place, I wouldn’t be doing my job — it could even be construed as malfeasance on my part — not to exercise authority” over the attorneys working with the parish president and the council, he said.

What’s more, Montgomery hinted in an interview that personnel changes could be in the offing, saying he had questions about the legal advice the parish has been getting, specifically with regard to the charter amendments.

Council President Richard Tanner said the parties have met to discuss the issue of representation going forward but haven’t come up with a solution. “We haven’t got there yet, but we are working on it,” he said.

The council’s position is simple, he said: “I think we should have complete control over who’s representing us.”

Both Tanner and parish President Pat Brister said they would have a problem if Montgomery changed any of the personnel in their present legal teams.

Prosecutorial conduct

Prosecutors in the DA’s Office also have seen a lot of change. Montgomery brought in Collin Sims from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans to run the Criminal Division and shipped Ronnie Gracianette, who filled that role under Reed, to Washington Parish, the less populous part of the office’s jurisdiction.

Veteran prosecutors Jack Hoffstadt and Nick Noriea have left the office. Some other Reed holdovers, including Leigh Anne Wall and Julie Knight, both of whom were named as defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit, also have left. And John Alford — one of Reed’s “St. Slammany” Award winners — joined Gracianette in Washington Parish.

But where Montgomery points to the greatest turnover is in the ranks of the office’s investigators. Several investigators in the previous administration were former colleagues of Reed from his days in the New Orleans Police Department, including Louis Dabdoub Jr., who is now under state indictment, charged with lying in an arrest warrant. At least two other holdover investigators have been arrested and fired.

“That was a glaring area that need to be upgraded,” Montgomery said.

He also changed personnel in the Misdemeanor Division and hired a new case screener.

“Maybe we are changing the culture of this office,” he said.

But while Montgomery sees change, some defense attorneys — none of whom would speak on the record — say they see more of the same.

Complaints that were quietly voiced during the Reed regime persist: that prosecutors use the threat of multiple-billing — using a defendant’s prior convictions to obtain a stiffer sentence — offenders too much and refuse to consider the circumstances of each case. Defense attorneys also say Sims’ hard-line federal-prosecutor demeanor doesn’t work in a situation where they are used to more give-and-take in dealings with the DA’s Office.

Montgomery said those grumbles had not reached him. But, he conceded, there may be some truth to them.

“Are we a little too inflexible?” he asked. “We may be.”

Some of that inflexibility may come as a reaction against the Reed administration, where decisions were made “based on relationships and connections rather than the merits of the case,” he said.

On the flip side, local law enforcement chiefs have given Montgomery high marks, and he earned words of praise from the Rev. Donald Burris, pastor of the Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church in Mandeville and a leader of the parish’s black community.

Burris singled out Montgomery’s accessibility, saying, “Whenever we need him, he’s come talk to us.”

Similarly, Mandeville Police Chief Rick Richard praised the DA’s willingness to work with police. “You get answers to your questions immediately and great guidance,” Richard said.

Looming challenges

Going into his second year, Montgomery’s honeymoon period is likely over.

Among the challenges in year two: fleshing out how his office will work with parish government, and several high-profile criminal cases, none bigger than that of Kacie Breen, the Folsom woman who shot and killed her doctor husband in early 2015.

Breen was never arrested, and the DA’s Office is still reviewing the case, though a decision could come this month. The case has generated intense media and community interest.

Montgomery also will face scrutiny over the case of Mac Phipps, a rapper who was convicted of manslaughter and jailed more than 15 years ago on a 30-year sentence. Media reports in the Huffington Post and The Lens have called that conviction into question, and Phipps has retained prominent Covington defense attorney Buddy Spell.

Those challenges will be put through Montgomery’s legal philosophy, which he said hasn’t changed in his first year on the job. “If a person wants to make a career out of crime, that person needs to be taken out of society,” he said. But if a person has a problem such as drug addiction or mental illness, getting them treatment is a better option, he said.

And while that philosophy has remained constant, “That doesn’t mean we won’t adjust it as we go along. It doesn’t mean there won’t be changes,” he said.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.

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