District attorney marks first 100 days in office

Published 8:33 am Friday, May 29, 2015

In his first 100 days on the job, District Attorney Warren Montgomery has added a diverse group of experienced professionals to his staff, improved the screening of cases for prosecution and developed a manual that lays out employee benefits, office policies and ethical guidelines.

Montgomery was sworn into office Jan. 12 in the 22nd Judicial District and will mark 100 days — minus weekends — on May 29.

“From day one, I have focused on building a team that operates with the highest degree of ethics, professionalism and competence,” Montgomery said. “We are taking the politics out of the District Attorney’s Office and creating a true meritocracy.”

Montgomery said he is especially proud of his 26 new hires so far — 11 attorneys, nine investigators, four secretaries, a Victim Assistance Program coordinator and a public information officer. The newcomers include three female section heads: Francesca A. Bridges, who is head of the new Screening Division; Caroline Barkerding, supervisor of the Misdemeanors and Juvenile Divisions; and Margaret E. Laurent, a Victim Assistance Program coordinator.

Bridges spent nearly 12 years as a prosecutor for the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office and served as lead counsel in 10 of the 12 sections of court, where she prosecuted criminal defendants charged with sex crimes, crimes of violence and weight narcotics.

Barkerding, who was raised in Covington and graduated from St. Scholastica Academy, worked for a private law firm before moving to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. She spent nearly six years there, prosecuting cases in the Magistrate, Municipal, Felony, Juvenile, Child In Need Of Care and Domestic Violence divisions.

Laurent spent 16 years through 2007 as an administrative assistant for the City of Compton in California, where she served as the liaison to the mayor and city council. In more recent years, she has worked as a records archivist, supervisory records analyst, office manager and owner/president of a vocational training academy.

Adding more diversity to the office has been a goal, Montgomery said. Among the new hires are four African-Americans, who are in “crucial, professional, decision-making roles,” he added. Montgomery also has beefed up his investigative unit. The new investigators include:

• Two former New Orleans Police Department veterans. Capt. Tammi A. Brisset served 38 years, including the last two as Commander of the department’s Public Integrity Bureau. And John O. Duzac is a retired officer who served 29 years, the last three assigned to the F.B.I.’s Violent Crime Task force.

• Matthew L. Issman, who is the former LSU Chief of Police and also worked as a state trooper, Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy, supervisory special agent for the U.S. Customs Service and senior instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

• Warren J. Fitzgerald III is an eight-year veteran investigator for the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. He retired from the New Orleans Police Department after 25 years.

• Vincent R. Saltaformaggio is a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent with 24 years experience, conducting complex investigations and helping to supervise a high-intensity drug trafficking area, and 10 years experience as a Louisiana State trooper.

• William Fihlman is an Air National Guard veteran who retired with 35 years experience as an aircraft electrician and later at age 55 became a police officer in Wareham, Mass. He served as a patrolman, accreditation manager, background investigator, crime scene photographer and public information officer.

• Tommie Sorrell is a 23-year law enforcement veteran and former supervisor of the Washington Parish Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation Division.

• James Collignon and Jerome DFranco are two retired FBI agents with extensive investigatory experience.

Twenty-one people have left the District Attorney’s Office for a variety of reasons in the transition, Montgomery said.

In addition to hiring high-quality staff, Montgomery also created a new Screening Division, headed by Bridges. The purpose of the new unit is to evaluate cases earlier in the process to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support prosecution. The division decides whether to accept what law enforcement has booked, add, refuse or change charges or refer them to another jurisdiction. The goal is to be able to properly charge a defendant with a crime as soon as possible after an arrest so that prosecutors are ready for trial and can avoid unnecessary delays.

To assist in this endeavor, local law enforcement agencies have agreed to provide their investigatory records to the District Attorney’s Office much sooner in the process. Prosecutors will have electronic access to police reports, jail reports and crime lab reports as soon as the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office completes them. The Slidell Police Department and Washington Parish Sheriff’s Office also have agreed to provide electronic access to their reports.

“I applaud the local law enforcement agencies that are working with us even more closely to assure that we are able to present the strongest possible cases,” Montgomery said.

Finally, Montgomery said his chiefs have worked diligently to complete the policy manual, which is undergoing a final round of employee feedback and is expected to be approved by June 1.

The new manual establishes clear policies on sick leave and vacation, particularly for investigators and non-exempt employees, who do not accumulate leave under the parish system. It establishes a one-year probationary period for all new employees and bans them from using office resources, identifications and logos to support any political purpose (though they may participate in the process as private citizens).

The manual also forbids assistant district attorneys from accepting the civil representation of any private client involved in any matter pending in the District Attorney’s Office. The manual discourages secondary work outside of the office and requires those seeking to obtain outside work to get prior approval from the district attorney.

“Our employees deserve to know what is expected of them in every area from their professional behavior to the amount of leave they can accumulate,” Montgomery said. “Every professional operation lays out these guidelines. They help to even the playing field so that everyone is playing by the same set of rules.”

Other highlights of Montgomery’s first 100 days are:

• Improved transparency – Montgomery hired a full-time public information officer, Lisa Frazier Page, who spent nearly 30 years as a reporter and editor at two major newspapers, to provide information about the office’s activities to the media and the public. She also helps to handle public records requests and serves on his Executive Advisory Committee.

• New pilot program to assist indigent defendants – Montgomery has approved a pilot program to examine how to help low-income, first-time offenders gain access to the office’s Diversion Program if they meet the qualifications but cannot afford the fees.