SLIDELL – It took 30 years for the voters in the 22nd Judicial District to elect a new district attorney after Walter Reed held the position for three decades.
But St. Tammany Parish lawyer Vincent Wynne believes another change in that position is still needed so the court system will operate in a way that provides real justice to the people on the North Shore.
Wynne is one of three candidates who has announced plans to run for district attorney on Nov 3rd, 2020.
He plans to challenge incumbent Warren Montgomery, as well as former Slidell City Court Judge Jim Lamz, the only other two candidates who have so far said they plan to qualify in July for the fall election.
Wynne believes he has been preparing the last 23 years to become the 22nd Court district attorney. Looking at his past experience since graduating law school from Loyola in 1997 he could make a good case for that, having worked as a prosecutor for the D.A.’s Office and a defense attorney through his personal law firm.
Working in the relationship that lawyers have with the 22nd Court assistant district attorneys (ADA’s), as well as law enforcement that makes arrests and submits cases for prosecution, Wynne said he understands the system as well as anyone could. And he believes the last five-and-a-half years under Montgomery’s leadership has been a failure as far as ensuring justice is fairly handed out for victims.
“The relationship between the DA’s office and law enforcement is broken. The people who make the arrests and submit them for prosecution are not included in the process in any substantial way—and right now the ADA’s are so overloaded and backlogged and they are making far too many plea deals,” Wynne said.
“Additionally, the system under Warren is set up so that only one person, his top assistant, is allowed to sign off on any plea deal. There are a lot of smart, experienced ADA’s and they have to go to one person for any deal. The entire system is the problem now, and the way it is happening has backlogged things so badly that charges are being reduced too much, just to move cases through the system,” he stated. “Victims and their families are not seeing justice.”
Additionally, as was charged by Lamz in his campaign announcement, Wynne said Montgomery is “out of touch” and inaccessible to the people who elected him.
“Warren does not have a good relationship with law enforcement, much of whom are very unhappy with the way the screening process goes for cases, and to see many of their cases end up with reduced charges. I’ve heard from many lawyers and business people who say they can’t get to talk to him,” he added. “We need a DA who is accessible and returns phone calls. I tried to get an appointment with him a few months after his election and it took me months.”
And Wynne said that situation has gone on for over five years, and is not due to the recent fight against cancer Montgomery has been dealing with.
Wynne also said Montgomery has passed off the main responsibility of making decisions on cases to his number one in command, Colin Sims.
“Early on, Warren became hands-off in running the department. He turned the operation of cases over to Colin, who hasn’t even worked in this kind of system much. Colin was a federal prosecutor and never lived, ate and breathed what goes on in the 22nd. He is used to making a deal by talking to one FBI agent. That doesn’t work here and that’s part of the problem in this system being so backlogged,” he said. Wynne also said he believes the system is backed up and leading to “judges being on edge trying to get cases finished,” making the backlog worse.
Wynne, 48, passed up a high-paying position right out of college, initially intending to go into maritime law. He opted instead to be hired by former DA Reed that led to eight years in the DA’s Office, before he was on the defense side of cases with his personal firm.
“I was sure I was going into maritime law and had several offers to make around $70,000 a year right out of college,” he said. “But in my last year of college I was asked to take an intern job in the 22nd. I worked two jobs all through college to pay my way, so that was a big deal to take the internship, which was free work. But I thought it would be good experience and on the first day I sat through a trial that just hooked me.
“I could see that it fit my personality to be in court and argue a case. I’ve always had a reputation as a guy who likes to talk—some people have said I could talk to a Coke machine. But when I sat through that trial I knew it was for me,” he said.
He was hired by Reed for $26,000 a year, working in the forfeiture division, then within a year-and-a-half at the young age of 26, was named to head the department.
“We worked closely with law enforcement and I really liked that. I built a good relationship with the investigators and police officers and have maintained that all the years after I went in with Vinny Lobello and Jeremy Goux to form our own firm. The relationships with law enforcement is something I will use to make sure this court handles cases efficiently and correctly, making sure justice is being handed out in the right way,” he explained.
After spending eight years with the DA’s office, he left to concentrate on the private firm the trio began in 2003. Working criminal cases he learned about the relationship between law enforcement and the ADA’s, something he said was very effective in the days of Reed.
“Even though Walter ended up having some other problems, the court was tough on crime back then. It worked well and made sure criminals paid for their crimes. That is something which is missing now and I will bring it back,” he noted.
During the years in his personal firm Wynne also began to work in political campaigns. He said he began to think that the day would come when he would run for D.A.
“I had plenty of people who wanted me to run for other positions, but I never considered running for anything but D.A. I had to wait for the right timing and that timing is now. I have a very successful personal firm and I don’t need the job of D.A.—I want the job since I have always taken civic responsibility seriously, and now believe I need to be the district attorney for the sake of the law-abiding people of this district,” he said.
Wynne said the 22nd Court, which serves St. Tammany and Washington Parish, is only holding “about 40 trials a year,” whereas Reed prided himself on taking on at least 100 cases to trial each year. Wynne said he has researched reasons for the difference and said one key is that there is a lot of turnover of ADA’S.
“Since Warren took office they have gone through about 35 ADA’s, not to mention had almost 90 employees in the office turn over. That’s a lot and one reason for the ADA situation is that they are frustrated by their lack of authority to make decisions.
“Additionally, the ADA average years of experience is only three to four years in law. They don’t have the experience to effectively handle the important cases, so it appears the office is pleading many more of them out rather than going to trial,” he added.
“There are a lot of good people serving as ADA’s. They are not the problem—the system is the problem. We need to give the ADA’s the parameters on how and when to make a plea deal and that will improve the efficiency and the outcomes for victims. And it will get cases moving so there is quick justice,” he added.
Wynne said he is “committed to communication with the public. I work 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. now and I am committed to work that hard as D.A. I will be in Bogalusa, Franklinton and Slidell offices, besides here in Covington, where people can talk to me. The D.A. owes it to the community to be available to the public,” he said.
Wynne said he also wants to enhance programs to tackle the drug epidemic and domestic abuse.
“We have programs for these things now, but I believe we can do more,” he said. “Drug addiction is a tremendous problem and it is killing our kids. We’ve lost a generation. The specialty courts help, but we can do more. We need to create a Task Force to go after the dealers and then prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”
He noted a highly-publicized heroin bust in 2019 that netted nearly 50 arrests, but added “many of those cases were reduced and the dealers served very little jail time.”
Wynne believes this is a critical time for the North Shore to maintain a tough stance against crime.
“I want to make sure people feel safe and I want to take care of law enforcement on the front lines making arrests,” he said. “We don’t need six more years of what has happened and I believe my experience allows me to understand the ins and outs of how this department can operate more efficiently, and put criminals away.”
Wynne is married with three children, ages 14 to 20.
(Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a three-part series interviewing the three announced candidates for the District Attorney election in the 22nd Judicial District Court, set for Nov 3rd, 2020. Next week, incumbent D.A. Warren Montgomery.)