It came as no surprise to courthouse observers that former Caddo Commissioner Michael Williams was recently found guilty of all 11 charges of wire fraud by a federal court jury in Shreveport. The only real surprise, other than the fact that Williams did not accept a plea deal, was how fast the verdicts were returned—in less than 90 minutes. Basically that meant the jurors took a restroom break, got a drink of water, voted SEPARATELY on each charge with practically no discussion, and then returned to the courtroom. In legal parlance, that’s called a slam dunk by the prosecution. Williams will be sentenced on June 13; the maximum sentence is 20 years and it is anticipated his sentence will be at least 5 years.
So what can be learned by this unfortunate chapter in the history of public officials who got greedy—and were caught? Several things! Initially, remember that the U.S. Attorney’s office does not mess around once it files charges; locally they rarely, as in very rarely, lose criminal prosecutions.
Secondly—plea offers should be seriously considered; Williams could have plead to one charge of wire fraud with a probated sentence, i.e. no jail time. He should have learned from the experience of former Shreveport assistant chief administrative officer Rick Seaton who was charged with sexual misconduct; Seaton turned down a similar plea offer of no jail time and he was sentenced to 20 years after found guilty in Caddo district court. So now Williams has not only lost his misguided pride, but also will lose his freedom for a few years.
Another important lesson is that the Caddo Sheriff can, if necessary, seek the assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s office if the Caddo District Attorney will not investigate and prosecute cases. Former Caddo DA Charles Scott was presented the same evidence that the feds used to convict Williams; Scott declined to prosecute the case. To his credit new Caddo DA James Stewart has hired a very experienced attorney to head up a newly formed white collar crimes unit and he has promised to prosecute these cases as diligently as burglaries and other routine crimes. The attorneys for car accident injuries cases deal with such cases.
Williams was the big proponent of the Swag Nation juvenile program and he used his influence as a Caddo Commissioner to have the program funded—over the objections of several Commissioners who ultimately were browbeaten not to be “racists”; the Swag Nation program targets black youths. After his success funding this questionable project, then Williams took an active role in the program itself, which may have lead to the lack of proper internal control of moneys funded by the Commission. Next lesson : Caddo Commissioners should be forbidden to be in the management of programs funded by the Commission.
As much as Williams himself was guilty of actively putting his hand in the public money till, the staff of the Caddo Commission bear some responsibility for allowing these thefts—YES, by very poor if not horrible internal controls. The lack of proper oversight by Commission personnel after signing the contract with Swag Nation is shocking to say the least. Law enforcement officials report that this was one of the poorest administered funding by a public agency on record, and even the presiding judge deemed the accounting standards and procedures to be “amorphous”—lacking organization and structure.
Currently the Commission has a newly formed committee (headed by John Atkins) that is reviewing its guidelines for funding NGOs—non-government entities. The initial committee meeting was attended by many non-committee Commissioners; obviously this funding program is the holy grail to those that like to sprinkle out public funds to many organizations that in the past have had little, if any, reporting criteria. Hopefully the reform minded coalition that pushed through changes to CPERS, COLA, and health insurance will be able to make meaningful revision in the NGO funding process—as well as very much needed changes in administration of public funds for these programs. Opposition will most likely come from Ken Epperson, who was very active in the election campaign of Williams this past fall; Epperson has already attacked Steven Jackson who thankfully handily defeated Williams in the runoff—sparing the Commission another embarrassment of having a convicted member in their ranks. (After all, the prior Commission had an “indicted” Williams on the Commission, and public payroll, for eight months.)
Fiscal reform is needed by all government entities, and the Caddo Commission is no exception. Too many of its current members brag about a Commission surplus that was generated in large part without their energies—the revenues from the oil, gas and mineral leases executed during the Haynesville Shale boom. They should remember that Caddo voters defeated a proposed Commission bond issue in 2014 and the proposed Caddo School tax renewal last year. Public review of Commission actions and attendance at commission work sessions as well as regular meeting is important to re-enforce voter sentiment on the utilization of public funds—and especially with the reform efforts on the NGO funding program and administration.