New district attorney speaks on future of office

Published 8:32 am Friday, April 17, 2015

In his speech at the Leadership St. Tammany Alumni Foundation’s breakfast last week, District Attorney Warren Montgomery said good leaders must display courage, articulate their vision and surround themselves with good people — all of which he said he has tried to do in his first 90 days in office.

“Being a leader is showing people the way, articulating a vision, telling them where you are going and having the courage to step out, knowing you may be rejected,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery, the first new district attorney for Washington and St. Tammany parishes in 30 years, spoke before a crowd made up mostly of alumni of Leadership St. Tammany, a year-long program that aims to develop aspiring leaders across all disciplines. Montgomery told the audience that he applied to the program two years ago, but he was rejected.

He joked that he was such a long shot when he ran for district attorney last fall that many political figures didn’t want to be seen with him.

“Now they want to take pictures with me,” he added.

Montgomery said he entered the race because he had a vision of what the office could be. He said he wants a District Attorney’s Office where all employees display a high degree of ethics, professionalism and competence. Those are the standards he is using as he continues to evaluate all personnel, he said. Contrary to rumors spread during the election about what would happen if he were elected, he said he didn’t come into office and fire en masse employees who didn’t support him.

About five employees left before the change of administrations in January and another 10 have departed since, and most were “at the top of the food chain,” Montgomery said. “Making the right changes at the top of an organization can have a tremendous impact.”

As an example, Montgomery pointed to a practice known as “pick and pleas,” when a jury is selected even though a defendant has indicated a willingness to enter a plea deal. Because a trial technically begins when a jury is selected, entering a plea agreement after jury selection can artificially inflate the number of jury trials, create a false impression and cost taxpayers unnecessary money.

There are legitimate times when a plea deal after jury selection is beneficial, and Montgomery said that he didn’t come into office and issue an edict that prosecutors stop the practice. Instead, he said, he has tried to set a certain tone for the office so that all employees know they will be held to the highest professional ethics and standards.

As a result, since his administration took office Jan. 12, preliminary records show there have been no guilty pleas after jury selection. Also, of the 14 jury trials held during the first quarter this year, just one in early January resulted in a guilty plea after jury selection. By comparison, of the 28 jury trials held during the first quarter of 2014, nine of them, or 32 percent, ended in guilty pleas after jury selection. In the first quarter of 2013, 12 of the 21 jury trials —57 percent — ended in that fashion.

Montgomery said he believes most employees want to operate in an ethical and professional manner.

Montgomery also praised his staff, saying he has surrounded himself with good people. The District Attorney’s Office includes 119 employees who work in five different offices. Montgomery has hired nine new attorneys, including his three chiefs —Tony Sanders, chief of administration; Antonio LeMon, chief of the Civil Division; and Collin Sims, chief of the Criminal Division. The new staff also includes six new assistant district attorneys — Emily Couvillon, Angelle Delacroix, William Macke, Caroline Barkerding and Francesca Bridges.

Bridges and Sims are developing a new felony screening program to assure that defendants are properly charged and to speed up the process from arrest to conviction.

“If you want to stop crime, you have to make sure that punishment is swift, that punishment is certain and that punishment is proportionate to the crime committed,” Montgomery said.

Among the new employees also are eight new investigators, two of whom are part time.

Some questions from the audience centered on the Diversion Program, which offers non-violent offenders an opportunity for rehabilitation without a criminal record. But the fees associated with the program, which range from $200 to $1,500, in the past have kept many indigent defendants from participating. That has resulted in an unequal system, “people with means coming out with a clean record, while poor people came out with a record,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery announced a pilot program in Judge August J. Hand’s court n which the Public Defender’s Office will refer people who would qualify for the Diversion Program but don’t have the means to pay the fees. In those cases, the District Attorney’s Office will offer assistance to admit those defendants.

Finally, Montgomery praised the Leadership St. Tammany program for constantly replenishing the parish’s pool of leaders.

“What we really need in our country and our community is real leadership…And that’s what your program is all about,” Montgomery said.