Disturbing allegations have surfaced in New Orleans, Louisiana this week that an investigator at the Orleans Public Defender (OPD) may have been arrested in retaliation for exposing the alleged misconduct of a prosecutor in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.
OPD investigator Taryn Blume, through counsel, has moved to recuse District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and his assistant district attorney, Jason Napoli, from her case due to a serious conflict of interest: namely, that Napoli may have indicted her because she uncovered evidence that Napoli should have disclosed in an aggravated rape case, State v. Curtis Hawthorne.
Cannizzaro’s office arrested Blume in December, 2014 for allegedly pretending to be a district attorney investigator when she secured a report from two police officers with the Housing Authority of New Orleans eleven months earlier. The report demonstrated that the victim in Hawthorne did not initially report being raped, rendering it important Brady material in the case.
Since Napoli had repeatedly denied any knowledge of such evidence prior to its discovery by Blume, OPD lawyers claimed that Napoli had committed prosecutorial misconduct by failing to turn the report over.
In an effort to shift blame away from his own alleged misconduct in Hawthorne, Blume’s legal team alleges, Napoli turned around and argued that Blume was the reason he never got a copy of the report. He says she held herself out to be a district attorney investigator in order to trick two police supervisors at the Housing Authority into giving her the report, and that’s why he never saw it – the Housing Authority police thought they had turned it over when they hadn’t.
If the factual allegations in Blume’s motion for recusal are true, then it raises some serious ethical questions about Napoli’s handling of the case against Blume.
First, Napoli was the sole law enforcement officer involved in investigating Blume and seeking her indictment. According to the motion, he didn’t interview Blume or her supervisors and he didn’t attempt to secure the business cards she gave the police when she met them.
Second, in securing her indictment, Napoli failed to inform the grand jury that Blume had interviewed an officer that reports to the above-mentioned supervisors with their knowledge on numerous occasions by telephone and once at the OPD offices. Blume questions the plausibility of a scenario in which the supervisors thought she worked for the DA even though the junior officer who reports to them met her and the assistant public defender trying the case at the office of the public defender. In any event, the junior officer was never put before the grand jury.
Third, though Blume’s misrepresentations were supposedly made between January and April in 2014, and the DA’s office was made aware of them at that time, she wasn’t indicted until more than 10 months later – after Hawthorne was convicted and the Brady violation was raised by OPD. Why would the DA wait to prosecute Blume and allow her to continue investigating ongoing cases in the meantime?
In addition to these case-specific concerns, the motion also makes the broader assertion that Napoli has committed misconduct in numerous cases and has responded to pleadings by OPD asserting as much with contempt and threats. The exchange below, recorded in an affidavit by the Chief Public Defender, Derwin Bunton, is certainly troubling. It reads:
Most recently, OPD reports that Mr. Napoli threated a public defender in open court:
OPD: “We can be friends when he stops indicting my friends for doing their jobs.”
Napoli: “How about you next, Sarah.”
OPD: “I’m not scared of you.”
Napoli: “You say that now.”
The motion notes that “even idle threats of retaliation by a prosecutor against a public defender raises serious ethical concerns.” Indeed.
In an article by John Simerman of The New Orleans Advocate, Cannizzaro’s spokesperson Christopher Bowman (who has been in hot water himself over past ethical breaches) delivered a strong endorsement of Napoli:
“With regard to Jason Napoli, he is a very competent prosecutor, but above all, he is fair. He has the district attorney’s full and unwavering support. We will respond to the accusations in court.”
In contrast, when Blume was indicted in December, Bunton issued a statement saying that his office takes such accusations seriously and that they would begin their own investigation immediately. Investigator Blume was taken out of the field and placed on administrative duty pending the investigation.
While Bunton’s response was appropriately cautious, Cannizzaro’s is terribly problematic. For one, Bowman’s public comments vouch for Napoli and prejudice the case against Blume. They also suggest Cannizzaro has dismissed the allegations of misconduct in the motion out of hand and without investigation. Given his office’s long track record of misconduct, one would expect Cannizzaro to take these latest claims a bit more seriously. He has until March 27 to respond to the motion in court.
Read the motion in full here.
John Simerman of the New Orleans Advocate reported yesterday that District Attorney Cannizzaro’s office filed an 18 page response to the motion to recuse last Wednesday in which ADA Chris Bowman and First Assistant Graymond Martin threatened to file a complaint against Blume’s attorneys. Simerman writes:
Claims that Cannizzaro’s office concocted an indictment against 24-year-old investigator Taryn Blume as payback for allegations of ethical misconduct were met with scorn and a thinly veiled threat against her attorneys…
The District Attorney’s Office describes as “laughable” the allegation that Napoli concealed evidence in a case that ended in December with a jury convicting Curtis Hawthorne, 23, of aggravated rape, aggravated kidnapping and armed robbery in a Mardi Gras 2013 assault on a University of Texas senior.
Still more of a joke, according to the district attorney, is the idea that Blume is being prosecuted out of malice…
Cannizzaro’s office also has asked Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier to hold Magner and Cunningham in contempt…
Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino, a frequent legal commentator, argued in an affidavit on Blume’s behalf that Napoli and Cannizzaro have a “personal interest in the outcome of these proceedings” and should be barred from her prosecution.
Read more here.