Candidates for Louisiana attorney general prioritize crime fighting at forum
From left: Louisiana attorney general candidates Marty Maley, Liz Murrill, John Belton and John Stefanski listen to a question from Public Affairs Research Council President Steven Procopio at a forum Wednesday, April 26, 2023, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Baton Rouge. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
The four candidates running for attorney general cited crime as the top problem facing the state at a Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana forum held Wednesday in Baton Rouge. As to how they would address the issue if elected, each acknowledged, in varying degrees, the limited role the office plays in law enforcement.
Criminal cases account for perhaps the smallest workload at the AG’s office, although it is staffed with investigators and lawyers for such cases. The forum participants all pledged to extend those resources to local district attorneys as needed.
Two career prosecutors in the field — District Attorney John Belton of Ruston and Marty Maley of Baton Rouge — touted their experience trying cases. Solicitor General Liz Murrill spoke to her insight as the No. 2 person in the AG’s office, while state Rep. John Stefanski stressed his catch-all experience as a small town lawyer.
Maley was the only candidate to specifically address law enforcement needs. The surge of retiring police in Louisiana isn’t being replaced with a supply of adequately trained officers, he said, suggesting the AG’s office can help prepare those who are less experienced.
In reviewing his credentials, Maley mentioned his work helping successfully prosecute serial killers Derrick Todd Lee and Sean Gillis.
The candidates also spoke to the reality and perception of crime, which they said easily offsets any attributes Louisiana can offer to the families and businesses that call it home.
Murrill, who’s running to replace her boss, governor’s candidate Jeff Landry, said she carries a gun whenever she travels to New Orleans.
“You shouldn’t feel like you need to be armed when you step into a city in our state,” she said.
Stefanski said he would reach out to prosecutors in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport to determine how the AG’s office could assist their efforts. He suggested assistant AGs could handle appeals of local criminal cases if district attorneys pledge to prosecute more offenders with their freed up resources.
Belton, who prosecutes cases in Lincoln and Union parishes, said violent offenders and perpetrators of sex crimes should be targeted first, and the “compassionate side of justice” should be available to those who can be rehabilitated.
Belton is currently pursuing criminal charges against the five white police officers involved in the May 2019 death of Ronald Greene, a Black motorist, after a vehicle pursuit.
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When asked by PAR President Steven Procopio for their thoughts on transparency in the AG’s office, all four candidates promised to prioritize access to public meetings and records. In that vein, Murrill stressed her early career as a journalist before entering law school.
Her boss, Landry, sued a reporter from The Advocate to deny access to the AG’s records on an internal investigation into sexual harassment allegations against one of his top assistants. A judge ruled against Landry, forcing him to turn over the requested records.
The candidates were also questioned about their anticipated reliance on outside attorneys for state work. Such contracts have come under scrutiny for their price tags and political connections.
Murrill detailed the wide breadth of legal work the AG’s office performs. In its risk division, which handles lawsuits against the state, she said there are some 3,000 lawsuits pending seeking a combined $1 billion in damages. Roughly 85% of those cases are handled in-house, she said, and the remaining often involve complicated litigation that needs specialized legal expertise.
The other three candidates made similar pledges to use outside counsel only as needed.
Asked to differentiate themselves from one another, Belton, who has no party affiliation, noted he’s the only non-Republican in the race. Stefanski, the youngest candidate, mentioned he is not a career politician.
Murrill said she is already performing the work that the other contenders are saying they will do, while Maley once again emphasized his background as a prosecutor and running his own law firm for 30-plus years.
Based on campaign finance reports submitted earlier this month, Murrill has the most cash on hand with more than $893,000. Stefanski is next at $645,000, followed by Belton at $419,000 and Maley with $16,000.
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