SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – The federal criminal trial of a sitting Caddo Commissioner and his sister has been rescheduled for an unprecedented ninth time.
Caddo Parish Commissioner (D-Dist. 6) Lynn Cawthorne and his sister, Belena Turner are both accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a summer feeding program for children. Their August 16, 2021 trial has been postponed until Sept. 20 due to injuries sustained by Turner’s attorney, Pete Kammer, who had a doctor’s excuse.
In April 2018, Cawthorne and Turner were indicted on seven wire-fraud-related counts and 18 money-laundering counts. A year and a half later, another federal grand jury handed down another indictment, charging Cawthorne with two counts of filing false U.S. Income Tax returns.
According to the original indictment, Cawthorne and Turner served as president and executive director respectively of United Citizens and Neighborhoods (UCAN), a non-profit summer feeding program for low-income children. They are accused of bilking the government out of $536,000 by reporting to the government that they fed more children than were actually fed.
The state of Louisiana actually filed suit against the brother and sister duo.
Cawthorne and Turner first appeared in court on May 2, 2018 but did not enter a plea at that time, as they were still trying to figure out who would represent them in court.
Their first trial date, Jan. 14, 2019, was reset for August 5, 2019, after government prosecutors said they needed several more months to roll out all the evidence and defense attorneys said they needed more time to read it.
The Speedy Trial Act of 1974, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3161-74, generally requires a federal criminal trial to begin 70 days after a defendant is charged with a crime or has made an initial appearance, but in this case, U.S. Magistrate Mark L. Hornsby said the delay was “absolutely necessary,” adding, “The Court also finds that the need for additional discovery outweighs the public’s right to a speedy trial.”
Since then, other trial dates that have been set and then continued for a variety of reasons were August 5, 2019, July 15, 2019, Sept. 30, 2019, Feb. 3, 2020, July 13, 2020, Sept. 28, 2020, April 12, 2021, August 16, 2021, which in July was continued to Sept. 20, 2021.
It was only after three trial dates had come and gone in December 2019 that the new federal grand jury indicted Cawthorn on two counts of tax fraud.
The next month, January 2020, Cawthorne’s attorney Randy Keene asked that the two trials be combined. Hornsby agreed to combine the money laundering case with Cawthorn’s 26-count wire fraud/money laundering case, meaning that, although the trial on the original charges has been reset nine times, the tax fraud trial has only been reset six times.
According to court documents, the latest rescheduling was done due to Turner’s defense attorney, Pete Kammer, who sustained serious injuries that included extensive damage to one lung and broken ribs.
A motion submitted by defense attorneys claimed Kammer’s injuries prevented him from working and preparing for the trial. The motion included a letter from Kammer’s doctor indicating Kammer is unable to return to work “until at least August 1, 2021.” The request was granted by U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote.
But Foote reset the trial just a little over a month from the August 16 date, and Court schedules and trials were moved around to accommodate the Sept. 20 setting.
This, however, was not the first attempt to once again reset the trial. In the past two months, two previous attempts – one from each of the defendants – failed.
In May, Turner tried to get the August date continued because she said her daughter had accepted a track scholarship to Duke University and had to report to the school in Durham, N.C. on August 17, 2021.
Although the motion contained Turner’s daughter’s community service record, academic record, athletic record, and a copy of a story about her daughter written by Jerry Byrd for North Louisiana Track and Field, nowhere in the motion did she mention she intended to take her daughter to Durham.
Cawthorne did not join in the motion to continue but because he and his sister are being tried together, it affected him, as well.
Foote denied the motion on May 28, anyway, and the trial was still on for August 16.
But that wasn’t the final attempt to continue the trial, as Randy Keene, Cawthorne’s defense attorney, had one more arrow in his quiver. On June 29, in a telephone status conference with the Foote, Keene asked for yet another continuance.
Representing Turner, Kammer was in on the call, along with Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tenille Gilreath and Brandon Brown, who are prosecuting the case.
Court documents say Keene, representing Cawthorne, asked that the trial be continued for three reasons: 1. Amazon recently decided to locate a fulfillment center in Shreveport, and as chairman of the Commission’s Economic Development Committee, Cawthorne needed to be there for confidential discussions that were so secret, they couldn’t be shared with the judge; 2. Cawthorne was appointed to the commission’s Ad-Hoc American Rescue Plan and had to help the parish figure out how to use the $46 million allotment; and 3. Cawthorne is being considered for an at-large board position with the National Association of County Officials. If appointed, it would happen in August, which might be a conflict with the trial.
Foote was not impressed. In denying the request, she wrote that “Cawthorne’s situation is no different than any other criminal defendant whose employment carries significant responsibilities.”
Foote also wrote, “This case was indicted in 2018 and has had the scheduled trial date continued eight times in the last two years.” She added that only three of the continuances were caused by the COVID-19 setting.
So now, it appears that unless there is some kind of divine intervention, jury selection in United States of America versus Lynn D. Cawthorne (O1) and Belena Turner (02) will begin Sept. 20, 2021 in the Tom Stagg United States Courthouse in the Western District of Louisiana, 300 Fannin Street, Shreveport, La.