In opening statements Tuesday in the federal tax evasion trial of Orléans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams and attorney Nicole Burdett, the attorneys painted diametrically opposed pictures of the defendants: one of greedy lawyers money and highly intelligent bent on defrauding the government at all costs, and another as victims of an incompetent, lying tax evader who habitually defrauded the Internal Revenue Service.
The statements came on the second day of the scheduled two-week trial, an hour after 12 jurors and four alternates were seated by US District Court Judge Lance Africk.
The reforming district attorney and Burdett are charged in a 10-count indictment alleging they conspired with a Westwego tax preparer to commit tax evasion and failed to complete the proper forms for the cash receipts. Prosecutors allege the trio slashed Williams’ tax burden by $200,000 over a five-year period ending in 2017, by inflating business expenses by more than $700,000.
Burdett is charged separately with four other counts of tax evasion, accused of reducing her own tax debt by nearly $130,000 over four years, with the help of the same tax preparer, Henry Timothy.
Last year, Timothy pleaded guilty to a single count of filing a false tax return.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that Burdett hired Timothy in 2010 on the recommendation of another tax preparer and introduced him to Williams, with whom she worked. At the time, Williams had tax liens against him totaling about $90,000, prosecutors said, and hoped Timothy could amend his returns, reducing his debt to the IRS.
Timothy did. Satisfied with the work, Williams recruited his services for another five years.
But prosecutors described the relationship as fueled by pressure, with Burdett and Williams never satisfied with Timothy’s initial returns, and demanding more and more revisions until Williams’ tax liability was significantly reduced. . Timothy, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Uebinger said, has done the attorney auction every year.
“Mr. Timothy decided the ‘how’ of how it was done,” Uebinger said of the alleged false returns.
“But the why? Why was it made? It was done because it benefited them financially,” she said, nodding to the defendants, who were seated at separate tables with their defense attorneys.
With Timothy’s help, Williams reportedly increased his business expenses so high that he “barely seems able to keep the lights on” at his St. Charles Avenue law office, Uebinger said.
Burdett claimed about $60,000 in work supplies for a 100 square foot home office, she said.
Victims of a fraudster
As she began her opening statement, Lisa Monet Wayne, Williams’ defense attorney, said everyone is looking for a professional who can save them money. Williams “told Mr. Timothy ‘to make sure you save me as much as you can,'” Wayne said. “But it’s not illegal. That’s what most people in this country say on April 15,” referring to the date when tax returns must be filed.
On the contrary, the defendants’ intention to reduce their taxable income was anything but harmful, Wayne said. Each year, Williams and Burdett provided Timothy with a folder of receipts and records, documents they still have, trusting the tax preparer to take valid business expenses and discard the rest.
Every year they were tricked by Timothy, a man who claimed to be a certified public accountant but wasn’t, said Michael Magner, Burdett’s lead defense attorney.
On a projector, Magner projected one of Timothy’s college transcripts, with an “F” highlighted — the grade Timothy received in one of five accounting courses he took, Magner said. .
“He was an impostor from start to finish,” Magner said, “but they didn’t know it.”
Timothy not only falsified Williams and Burdett’s taxes, but he also filed fraudulent returns for many of his 1,500 clients, Magner said. “You’re going to have to figure out if he was incompetent or crooked, or a combination of the two,” Magner told the jury.
Timothy is expected to speak as the government’s star witness.
A chosen jury
The jury was sworn in at 3:40 p.m., after more than six hours of private and individual interviews with the judge and the lawyers. These meetings continued after a full day of interrogations on Monday.
The closed-door interviews denied little real-time information about what Africk and the attorneys asked the 94 potential jurors. But a 2021 court order requiring the panel of jurors to complete a questionnaire before the start of selection gives some clues to the tenor of the private conversations.
The seven-page, 24-query document included questions about jurors’ potential exposure to:
- Williams as a member of the city council or district attorney, or in Burdett as a lawyer
- Their belief that lawyers are experts in all areas of law
- If they might be biased against a black man, like Williams, charged with a crime
- Any personal experience with the Internal Revenue Service.
Of the 16 jurors, 11 are women; five are black. Most lean toward middle age.
The trial resumes Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.