If anyone was still wondering whether the feds are looking into the City of New Orleans' troubled crime camera program, former city technology chief Anthony Jones removed all doubt last week. Jones and his attorney, Lon Burns, called a news conference to announce to the world that Jones was about to testify before a federal grand jury.
Other than confirming the federal investigation, which we in the media loved, it was a strange move for an attorney to make on behalf of a client.
In addition to protesting Jones' innocence in the matter, Jones and Burns turned up the heat on the Nagin Administration and possibly some City Council members by claiming "certain elected officials" (emphasis mine) tried to make him the fall guy when the troubled crime camera program unraveled earlier this year — on Jones' watch — and after Jones allegedly refused to steer technology contracts to favored campaign donors.
Neither Jones nor Burns would name the elected officials or the campaign contributors, but Burns predicted that his client would make a strong government witness. He did not elaborate as to why — leaving us to wonder if Jones is testifying because he's trying to cut a deal to save himself or because he just wants to tell the truth.
Burns' most curious claim was that his client is not a target of the ongoing federal investigation — despite allegations in two crime camera audits that Jones directed the falsification of a vendor invoice, violated contract requirements and accepted a trip paid for by a contractor. Those allegations led to a 120-day suspension without pay in March.
If Jones truly is not a target, why call a news conference? I'm pretty sure I'm not a target in this case either, but I don't need to call a news conference to announce that fact. The upshot of Burns' dog and pony show was to draw more attention to his client, which can't be good for the federal government's case or for Jones, regardless of whether he is a cooperating witness or a target (or both). The feds typically like to assemble their cases quietly, not in front of TV cameras, and they like to keep a tight rein on their witnesses. Last week's move violated both protocols.
I didn't attend the news conference, but it reminded me of some other famously bad PR moves in the face of federal investigations. Former state Sen. Derrick Shepherd's disastrous presser a few weeks before he was indicted for money laundering last year and former Gov. Edwin Edwards' equally unwise news conference after the feds raided his home in 1997 and pulled $400,000 in cash from his safe come to mind. Shepherd, like Jones, tried to divert attention toward others while EWE claimed the $400K was the product of cattle sales and gambling wins. In both cases, their remarks to the media came back to haunt them. Both men are in jail today.
One comment from Burns rang true, however: his claim that the surveillance camera program lost its focus from the get-go, in 2004. "It was corrupted long before Anthony Jones was put in charge," Burns said.
Few would dispute that notion today, which is why Jones may indeed make a good witness for the prosecution — if he doesn't oversell himself first.
Burns said he called the news conference because he wanted to avoid a media frenzy when Jones walks into and out of federal court to testify. "I do not wish to make Mr. Anthony Jones a target," he said.
It may be a little late for that.