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Going Out Fighting

He's the only district attorney many New Orleanians have ever known. Before leaving office in January, Harry Connick has a few more words for his critics -- and about his legacy.

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Fifty years ago, Harry Connick went looking for a fight.

It was 1952 or '53, Connick remembers. He was enlisted in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and building military bases in North Africa, living in Morocco. One night, Harry Connick allowed a prominent bullfighter to drive his Studebaker Starlight Coupe on the road to Marrakech in exchange for a chance to step into a bullfighter's practice ring in Madrid. He never battled a single bull inside a corrida, although he did join the run at Pamplona.

And, Connick says, he learned a lesson from bullfighting that has helped him both as a politician and a prosecutor: "You have to face your enemy."

After 28 years as Orleans Parish District Attorney, Connick, 76, has no shortage of adversaries. Since announcing his retirement in March, he remains at the center of several pitched battles in public arenas:

· In August, the private, pro-law enforcement Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC) released a stinging report that blamed police and Connick's office for dismal low conviction rates for all major crimes.

· Connick's office came under more fire when it was disclosed that it had failed to prosecute two jailed violent crime suspects in March. After their release, the men allegedly killed Christopher Briede on Sept. 27.

· Connick last month clashed with Mayor Ray Nagin -- and public opinion -- when he announced that a lack of evidence prevented him from prosecuting 53 cabbies and three city officials arrested during the mayor's celebrated crackdown on corruption in July.

· Two of the three major candidates Connick supported in the Nov. 5 run-off elections -- his former assistant district attorney and Clerk of Civil Court Dale Atkins for district attorney and Connick first assistant Tim McElroy for criminal court judge -- were defeated. After newspaper disclosures about the Briede murder and Connick's refusal to prosecute the corruption case, the district attorney's once-prized endorsement became a political liability. (A source in the campaign of DA-elect Eddie Jordan, the former local U.S. Attorney, says some top campaign officials privately agreed with Connick's decision not to prosecute the cabbies and city officials, but used public sentiment on the issue against Atkins.)

A third Connick-backed candidate, Clerk of Criminal Court Ed Lombard, won a judicial seat on the state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by only 41 votes. The day after the election, Lombard told Gambit Weekly, "Harry is at his lowest power ebb."

Lombard, 56, says his longtime political ally should "relax" during his last weeks in office and enjoy his life as a big-band singer with a famous son. "He's a stubborn, old tough guy," Lombard says. "Harry should go around and say goodbye to all of his old pals, there's only a few us left, and enjoy life."

But anyone who believes that could be Harry Connick's exit strategy should think again. "If you want the DA to roll over and play dead, then the public is going to suffer," Connick says. "I've taken my licks for what I've done, and [my critics] should be able to take theirs."

In other words, Harry Connick, whose last day in office is Jan. 12, 2003, is going out fighting.

Assessing Connick's performance in office over the sweep of nearly three decades is a difficult feat. Trying to identify the threads of his legacy, especially those that will trail into the administration of Eddie Jordan, is not much easier.

The smoke has yet to clear from Connick's contemporary turf wars and political battles. Following an Oct. 22 press conference involving Connick's ongoing dispute with Nagin over the City Hall corruption probe, Gambit Weekly asked Connick about his legacy. His reply: "My legacy was made a long time ago, whatever it may be. And it's not going to depend on this (corruption) case, I assure you."

Now, Connick appears more reflective but just as focused. "We're working hard on some very important issues ... until the last day," he says. "I want to leave the office in much better shape than when I found it."

Despite his support for Eddie Jordan's opponent, Connick has continued lobbying city officials to approve $1.3 million in pay raises for his successor's 90 assistant district attorneys. In a letter to Nagin dated Sept. 10, Connick wrote that the benefits of his pay plan "will be immediate and productive not only to this office, but to the police and the court system as well."

Connick's last budget hearing with the New Orleans City Council is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21. The quest for money comes amid cooling relations between the district attorney and the mayor over the city corruption probe. "This is not going to deter us," Nagin said then. "We're going to have a new DA. Then, hopefully we'll have a new DA with a new perspective."

Responding to Nagin's comments, Connick says, "I consider that to be insulting because it questions my integrity. ... I think he's become involved in something and he's, in fact, over his head. This is new to him, and I don't think he knows what to do."

Nagin shrugs off the DA's retort: "He'll be out in January."

For a more detached view, Peter Scharf, director of University of New Orleans Center for Society Law and Justice and a criminal justice professor, suggests three criteria to fairly assess the performance of any district attorney. Informed of Scharf's list, Connick said it sounded fair and he kicked in a fourth criterion: office operations.

The Scharf/Connick index for assessing a DA:

· Look at "outcomes," such as conviction rates, case refusal rates and plea-bargain rates. Generally, higher conviction rates and lower plea-bargain rates indicate an effective district attorney. Other variables include cooperation from victims and witnesses.

· What is the public perception of propriety? Is the district attorney prosecuting individuals fairly and ethically? Optimally, favoritism does not creep into a district attorney's decision to prosecute or not prosecute a case, and there are no race or class disparities in prosecutions.

· How effectively does the district attorney serve as a hub for the local criminal justice system?

· What is the ability of the district attorney to secure qualified prosecutors, modern equipment and other infrastructure improvements while distancing the office from political interests?

So how does Harry Connick rate? There are both long-term and short-term views, says Scharf. In terms of conviction and low plea-bargain rates, he says he would expect Connick to show a career-long "strong record of achievement." But the short-term outcomes are in dispute. The MCC study blames a poor working relationship between the district attorney's office and NOPD for felony conviction rates of only 13 percent for three major crimes: homicide, rape, and assault and battery. In 1999-2000, defendants stayed in jail an average of 60 days after arrest awaiting a charge decision -- a wait known to inmates as "DA's time." Connick says the MCC misinterpreted the data his office provided for the study. He promises to respond with his own report before leaving office.

As for his office's high refusal rate, Connick looks back 30 years to his predecessor: "Jim Garrison accepted over 85 percent that the police department brought. There were a lot of people in jail who stayed there for long periods of time who should not have been there. There was a lot of failure to bring the cases to court because the cases weren't good. There was a lot of plea-bargaining and reduced charges."

If a police report doesn't meet the standards set out by the American Bar Association and the American District Attorneys Association, Connick says, he refuses it. "Any prosecutor who doesn't follow those rules, who doesn't get a complete police report, is inviting trouble," he says.

As Scharf sees it, when it comes to propriety, there are two opposing public perceptions of Connick. The major knock against Connick's office in the last decade was that he was overly aggressive in prosecuting cases -- especially death penalty cases such as Shareef Cousin and Curtis Kyles. In the Kyles case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Connick's office failed to turn over evidence that would have been favorable to defense attorneys.

"His office became nationally notorious for hiding evidence," says Denise LeBoeuf, a lawyer and director of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana. LeBoeuf says Connick claimed to prosecute every case for which the death penalty was technically available as a first-degree murder case, refusing to recognize some cases may call for life imprisonment.

"In virtually every capital case, there have been major issues of prosecutorial misconduct [by Connick's office]," she says. "Prosecutors have a dual obligation. They don't just have an obligation to the state as their client, they have an obligation to justice. And his office fell far short of that."

In a March interview with the Baton Rouge Advocate, Connick said that complaints that he is overzealous in pushing for the death penalty are absurd. "If we were overzealous, we would charge everybody," Connick told the Advocate. "We don't condone the intentional withholding of evidence," he stressed.

Ironically, Scharf points out that Connick's office has been accused in recent years of being less than aggressive. "It is kind of a 180-degree change in reputation," Scharf says. "In fairness, with all the changes in leadership at NOPD within the last 10 years -- and I think Police Chief Eddie Compass is trying to address this -- there have been questions about the poor quality of police reports [that go to the DA's office]."

Expressed attempts at propriety can run counter to public opinion or result in disastrous outcomes. In the Briede case, prosecutors initially blamed poor police work on their decision in March to release two violent crime suspects from jail, who later became suspected killers. The district attorney's office later also blamed a lack of missing and cooperative witnesses from the original crime spree for which the suspects were jailed, though The Times-Picayune reported little trouble in finding one victim/witness in another state.

"We did everything we could have done [to contact the victims/witnesses]," Connick says. "There has to be justification of arrest based on probable cause. There has to be some legal reason for the police interfering with the liberty of that citizen. There has to be some evidence to support a possible conviction. That standard was there April 1, 1974, and it's there today -- in the Briede case and thousands of other cases."

Sources say Connick shook up his staff following the Briede controversy. Prosecutor Margaret Hay replaced Melanie Talia as chief of the screening division, the office that decides whether to accept or refuse cases for prosecution. "It was an internal move which we don't discuss outside of our office," Connick says.

Twenty years ago, activists chanted "Cover-Up Connick," accusing the district attorney of protecting cops from prosecution after the November 1980 police investigation of a murdered officer that resulted in the police shooting deaths of four African Americans in Algiers and the subsequent beatings and tortures of alleged witnesses.

"I have no apologies in the Algiers case," Connick says. "We did exactly what the federal authorities did in that case, regarding the homicides and the beatings. Exactly what they did."

"Not true," says civil rights attorney Mary Howell, noting that Connick did not indict anyone in connection with the homicides or the beatings. The feds convicted three of the "Algiers 7" on civil rights violations; those officers went to prison.

"Algiers was symptomatic of a much bigger problem that Connick had concerning police corruption and brutality," Howell says. Connick, whose office depends largely on NOPD to gather evidence, sent police misconduct cases to a secret grand jury, which rarely indicted an officer, Howell says. "Connick had the power himself to charge. It was a power he abdicated."

From 1976 to 2001, Connick's office successfully prosecuted approximately 90 officers on criminal charges ranging from murder to drug possession, records show. Since 1994, the feds have successfully prosecuted 43 NOPD employees, most of whom were officers, says U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.

Connick's legacy leaves a major policy question for Jordan. Will the new district attorney continue presenting police cases to a secret grand jury or will he take direct responsibility for charges and refusals? Also, says Howell, a number of officer-involved homicide cases remain "open to examination" -- including the 1990 death of suspected cop-killer Adolph Archie. "The statute of limitations never expires on homicides," says Howell, who represented Archie's children in the settlement of their wrongful death suit against the city.

African-American activist Larry Jones loudly criticized both Connick and then-Mayor Dutch Morial, the city's first black mayor, for not being more aggressive against police misconduct following the Algiers incidents. "Algiers stuck in my craw for a long time," Jones says. "I thought Harry was a racist. As I matured, I realized Harry was not a racist and never was. He probably did what a black man at his age and his position would have done at the time." During Connick's overall career, the DA received "grudging support" from African Americans, Jones says.

"He's been careful not to step on people's civil rights, I don't care what they say," says Judge-elect Lombard, who in 1974 became the first African-American official elected citywide when he was elected clerk of criminal court. "But there was very little indictment of police for brutality in the black community. And I thought he should have been more aggressive on that."

By late last week, Connick had refused charges against all but eight city workers out of nearly 100 cabbies and municipal employees arrested in the mayor's corruption probe arrests in July. "The courts have actually agreed with Connick on issues of probable cause for those arrests, but his decision is unpopular," Scharf says.

Political pollster Ed Renwick concurs: "He has reasons for not prosecuting those cases -- but with the public, it's gone over like a ton of bricks."

Connick not only refused the charges, he called on the mayor, the police chief and the media to apologize for the arrests, which were televised and announced in advance by The Times-Picayune.

"For [Nagin] to lead the public to believe that the police gave us good evidence is grossly unfair, and this is what he has done," Connick says.

However, the feds have entered the fray and lauded Nagin for his cooperation in their probe, which sources say has extended to airport contracts. Recently, the widening probes have raised questions about the DA's lack of City Hall prosecutions during the eight-year administration of former Mayor Marc Morial, his close political ally. History may be kinder to Connick.

"In my 14 years' experience, Mr. Connick never interfered or injected to interfere with investigations," says Anthony Radosti, MCC vice president and a former NOPD detective who investigated white-collar crime under Connick from 1979-1993. "He never ever told us to take any action other than the proper action." Radosti notes that Connick gave investigators the green light to pursue two of the district attorney's own major campaign supporters who owned a collection agency; they were ultimately convicted of illegally pocketing Sewerage & Water Board fees paid by 408 customers.

In 1990, Connick himself was acquitted of federal racketeering and gambling charges, an ordeal he blamed on his arch-enemy and then-U.S. Attorney John Volz.

"The biggest mistake I ever made was to recuse myself," says Volz, who stepped aside because of his well-known feud with Connick. Department of Justice lawyers from Washington prosecuted the case instead, and Volz believes the feds would have had a better shot at a guilty verdict with a lesser charge. "He should have never been charged with racketeering. He was over-charged. He should have been charged with aiding and abetting a gambling operation."

Connick calls the federal case against him politically motivated: "[The case] is one of the things the endeared me to the police department," he says. "They snuck around, taped me surreptitiously, they went to the federal people to corroborate with Volz. The undercurrent of all this is Volz wanted to be the DA."

During the 1980s and early '90s, Connick's Economic Crimes Unit conducted a statewide insurance fraud investigation which salted the federal conviction of state Insurance Commissioner Sherman Bernard and shut down more than 10 insurance agencies, including a national firm operating in 49 states. So why has ECU been so quiet lately? "We will take what comes to us," Connick says. "We are not equipped to go out and look under rocks. Although there are things under those rocks, that is primarily a police function."

Sources say the DA resists and resents late invitations to investigations, especially one he feels has miscues -- like the mayor's probe and the feds' Canal Street brothel case. When local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten came under public fire for prosecuting the Canal Street brothel prostitutes but not the alleged legions of prominent customers, Letten said those cases were state offenses. Connick refused the cases.

"As far as I'm concerned, the outcome of that case was a big flop and they wanted to pass that on to me," Connick says. "Take out your own garbage."

In 1988, Connick conducted a wide-ranging investigation of alleged City Hall corruption during the administration of then-Mayor Dutch Morial, which resulted in the felony misdemeanor arrest of a city department head -- on the eve of an election referendum on Dutch Morial's (unsuccessful) proposal for a third term in office. "It was absolutely politically motivated," says former Morial press secretary Cheron Brylski.

Responds Connick with a chuckle: "Well, which side do you take? Am I buddy-buddy with the Morials? ... We did it when we got it. It just came out unfavorably for City Hall. So much for me not doing anything about City Hall.

"No (prosecution) decision -- and I say this with a very clear conscience -- has been predicated on anything political," Connick says of his career. "And let's see how it works in the future."

During the early 1990s, NOPD was so rife with misconduct that Connick's office was an "island of propriety," Scharf says, and Connick kept the local criminal justice system afloat. "[For that], he gets an A-plus."

Today, relations between the district attorney's office and other law enforcement agencies are strained. "There has been a lot of pissing within the local criminal justice community lately," says Scharf with a sigh.

Connick says there's "a misconception" about his office and other public entities. "And when somebody says that we are not working together, they really don't know what they are talking about."

For example, Connick says, the same day local U.S. Attorney Letten said the DA's office was not participating in a street crime program, Connick Assistant District Attorney Roger Jordan was at the federal office. "I didn't go, because I was not invited to the press conference," Connick says.

Last month, Letten, in an unusual move, announced his office, following Connick, had indicted the Briede murder suspects on federal charges. Connick's reaction: "I think the thing that caused the alarm was that [the murder victim] was a prominent white citizen. This prompted even the U.S. Attorney's Office to get involved, to jump in. Normally, they don't do this. They like high-profile cases, that's their history."

Letten defends the feds' role in the probes -- and expresses disappointment with Connick's remarks. "I don't know what's driving Harry," Letten says. "I don't know if it's bitterness, anger or whatever. It's kind of sad. I have always thought well of him and I still do. I think he's a great public servant.

"I think it's a little silly to characterize the brothel case as a big flop," Letten says. "We have had major defendants plead guilty to serious crimes in this case. The investigation is still ongoing. ... It's producing worthwhile results in this community and other large cities."

Connick's remarks on the feds' involvement in the Briede case are "totally inappropriate," says Letten, who says his office has prosecuted more than 25 "significant" carjacking cases since the mid-90s under a federal statute. "Most of the victims in these cases have been African-American," he says. Out of the four cases in which the local U.S. attorney's office has sought the death penalty since 1996, he says, the Briede case is the first and only to involve a white murder victim. "In [the Briede case]," he says, "notwithstanding the DA's investigation, I decided along with my staff that the assurance of obtaining justice demanded that we take the case."

Local attorney Nick Varrecchio, who as a law student worked for Connick's drug task force in 1987-88, says that the outgoing district attorney's legacy will be positive in the long run. "But the fact that the DA's office was not meshing well with NOPD when he had a very strong ally at City Hall (former Mayor Marc Morial) doesn't reflect well on Connick's years of service," he says.

Connick acknowledges he had longstanding problems with the NOPD under the administration of Supt. Richard Pennington (1994-2002), now police chief of Atlanta. While Connick says that he and Pennington are "good friends," he adds that behind the scenes they had "plenty of arguments, plenty of confrontations on a regular basis ... over late police reports, lack of evidence and bad evidence."

The only improvement that resulted was the expedited processing of police reports for screening drug cases, Connick says. "I conceived it and I implemented it over a great deal of resistance by the police department." Connick says inexperienced officers and low salaries plague the NOPD; he leaves his office supporting higher police pay and a 2,000-member force.

Meanwhile, Pennington's replacement, Chief Eddie Compass, is "a question mark," Connick says. "He's enthusiastic about what he does. He's trying. I like his commitment."

Connick has publicly clashed with judges for years. Individual judges have criticized his multiple-billing policy, which can send nonviolent, multiple offenders away for long stretches in prison. "Harry's basic philosophy is that bad people ought to go to jail forever," says Criminal Court Judge Calvin Johnson.

Connick has blasted judges who set bonds he feels are too low and for prison sentences he feels are too lenient. But a major policy battleground is drug courts, an alternative to prosecution. "Harry has never participated in drug court," Johnson says.

Connick operates a pre-trial diversion program, which keeps nonviolent first offenders from going to jail. And the judges operate post-conviction drug courts that help drug users stay clean by offering social services and assistance in finding jobs -- as well as the threat of jail if they relapse. The judges want to merge programs to keep even more drug users from ending up in prison. But Connick refuses.

"I'm not going to have a judge responsible for my responsibility, nor am I going to be responsible for one of their responsibilities," he says. "Drug courts may be discontinued with the termination of a grant or with the election of a judge to another office. They are under no obligation to continue to do it."

Connick also says the concept is not evenly applied. "Some judges have it; some judges don't. Drug court is really a Department of Corrections' responsibility. It really has to do with rehabilitation, which is way out of the scope of the judges' responsibility."

In one aspect at least, Connick's attitude appears to have changed over time. From 1974 to 1975, during his first six-year term, the district attorney sent dozens of heroin users and small-time dealers to prison to serve life sentences in the wake of two joint NOPD/federal drug operations called "Top Cat" and "Checkmate." The DA and the NOPD both won praise from Washington. Today, however, Connick said he would not be opposed to clemency for anyone still imprisoned in connection with the two drug operations.

"I'm not one that advocates 'burying' somebody in jail for most crimes," he says. "The death penalty, I am for. Serious and dangerous offenders ought to be kept in jail for as long as they have that potential. But I don't think those long, long penitentiary cases are necessary in many instances, but I think it is a strong deterrent. I think age has a lot to do with when somebody ought to be released, too."

Scharf predicts that obtaining resources for the district attorney's office from governmental entities without compromising case prosecution is going to be a "huge challenge" for the new DA. Connick says he has a clear conscience about being politically independent.

Today, two of Connick's biggest former supporters are now in federal prison, which Connick calls "very sad." When Connick first took office in 1974, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards and then-state Senate President Michael O'Keefe helped secure $500,000 for their political ally to run his office. "Governor Edwards took it out of [state Attorney General] Billy Guste's budget," Connick says, laughing. "He squealed like a stuck pig." Former Mayor Moon Landrieu, another major supporter, helped build the current four-story DA's building at 630 S. White St.

With the help of then-Louisiana Sens. Russell Long and F. Edward Hebert, Connick received federal funding to start up a career criminal offender bureau, a first-offender diversion program, and one of the first victim/witness protection programs in the nation. Connick's office also became the first DA's office in the nation to have a computerized case-tracking system. He created a policy manual and provided hospitalization and retirement programs for non-lawyer employees. Plus, Connick says proudly, his office never operated with a deficit.

Scharf suggests the DA's office has lost ground on the technological forefront. "In some ways, NOPD has gotten its act together since the early '90s," Scharf says. "And I'm not sure whether the DA's office has kept pace with the police department's information technology and case movement."

Connick replies: "Well, it's not because we haven't tried."

Since Connick first took office in 1974, law school tuitions have soared. Many graduates are looking to pay bills, not work in the DA's office for $30,000 a year for a three-year commitment. The result has been a high turnover rate that can hurt prosecution cases.

"With all respect to Harry, every time you change lawyers you weaken the case," Judge Johnson says. "It happens with damn near every serious case in this building because you have musical prosecutors."

Connick has tried unsuccessfully to get major law firms to provide pro bono attorneys for his office. And he has refused to revisit a policy that bars his attorneys from supplementing their salaries with private practice. "I want the full commitment of every one of my lawyers to representing the public," he says. "I don't want them concerned about some divorce case."

Despite low salaries, Connick has been able to attract talent, Scharf says. With retired NOPD Maj. Howard Robertson as chief investigator, the DA's office has done a better job of assessing which cases can be prosecuted, he says.

Connick says his office is working to resolve pending cases "before we leave, to make at as clean as possible for the incoming DA.

"The new DA will have a modern office," Connick says. "There'll be room for improvement, depending on the budget. He'll have some very experienced, capable lawyers with some inexperienced lawyers ... . But good programs. It's a well-organized office, contrary to what everyone says. It's not in shambles. It's not in chaos. Everybody is working. Everything is in order."

As Connick closes his administration, the writing of his legacy is just beginning. "If he had gone out six years ago he would have been in fine fettle," pollster Renwick says. "He went through the typical three-stage career: he was seen as the reformer when he ousted Garrison, then as a professional politician and a major political force. But in the end, because of the City Hall scandals, he was seen as someone who had stayed too long."

Connick may fight to the end, says Renwick, but the crowds may not stay to watch. "Whenever you are at the end of your career, people don't pay as much attention to you as they did when you were in your prime," Renwick said. "Eddie Jordan probably is getting phone calls returned a lot faster as DA-elect than Connick is as district attorney."

From his courthouse chambers, Judge Johnson looks out of a window to the DA's building across the street. "I think the city owes Harry a commendation, even a celebration," he says. "He shouldn't be shoved out. He deserves a day in the sun. He gave this city 30 years."

Not surprisingly, Connick agrees. Still, his almost sentimental recollections of old foes and battles suggest he might rather have one more good fight. "I don't get along with anybody who challenges my integrity," Connick says. "I like smooth. I like easy. I don't like confrontation, but I'm not going to back down from it. And they better realize that."

'My legacy was made a long time ago, whatever it may be,' says Harry Connick after nearly three decades in office. - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • 'My legacy was made a long time ago, whatever it may be,' says Harry Connick after nearly three decades in office.
Reform candidate Harry Connick at a testimonial dinner during his successful 1973 campaign, when he ousted Jim Garrison. - ROBIN VON BRETON
  • Robin von Breton
  • Reform candidate Harry Connick at a testimonial dinner during his successful 1973 campaign, when he ousted Jim Garrison.
Harry Connick in a 1996 campaign debate, with opponents James Gray, Morris Reed and Joe Meyer Jr. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Harry Connick in a 1996 campaign debate, with opponents James Gray, Morris Reed and Joe Meyer Jr.
'No decision has been predicated on anything political,' Harry Connick says of his career. 'And let's see how it works in the future.' - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • 'No decision has been predicated on anything political,' Harry Connick says of his career. 'And let's see how it works in the future.'
'I don't get along with anybody who challenges my integrity,' says Harry Connick. - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • 'I don't get along with anybody who challenges my integrity,' says Harry Connick.

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