Harry Morel

Harry Morel, a former district attorney for St. Charles Parish, La., arrives with his attorney Ralph Capitelli, right, at Federal Court in New Orleans, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

When FBI agent Michael Zummer lost his security clearance and was suspended without pay last year, his superiors informed him, “This is not a punishment.”

It sure must have felt like one, and Zummer has been in limbo ever since. He has now filed a lawsuit seeking reinstatement and back pay.

Zummer led the investigation that concluded then-St. Charles Parish DA Harry Morel habitually let female defendants off the hook in return for sex. He operated in this fashion for some 20 years and was described by prosecutors at a press conference as a “sexual predator.”

He got the mother of sweetheart deals, however, and was allowed last August to plead to one count of obstruction of justice. Zummer was so disgusted that, as sentencing day approached, he sent a letter to U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt. His punishment followed swiftly.

While it is generally unwise to set store by the allegations in a lawsuit to which the defense has yet to file a response, the evidence on this occasion strongly suggests that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office have been involved in a cover-up.

Engelhardt sentenced Morel to three years, the maximum available, but declined to put Zummer's letter on the public record. He did, however, note that it was “troubling to say the least,” and he shared Zummer's “legitimate concerns” that the Justice Department is “unable or unwilling to self-police lapses of ethics, professionalism in its ranks.”

The FBI has since been released the letter, but only, of course, after redacting all the juicy bits. Enough survives, however, to confirm that Zummer attributed Morel's break to corruption on the part of the feds whose names are blacked out.

Zummer received further support from U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who evidently does not believe the “This is not punishment" line either. In a letter to Justice Department officials in Washington, Grassley noted that Zummer's suspension looks like “misuse of the security clearance process to mask retaliation for protected whistleblowing.”

Zummer had sought permission to send his letter to Engelhardt but, according to his lawsuit, his superiors gave him the runaround. After waiting more than three months, when it was clear he wouldn't get a decision before Morel was sentenced, Zummer submitted his letter to Engelhardt and informed his bosses, who asked him to retract it. He refused and remains a pariah to this day.

It is hard to see the FBI emerging with any credit from this litigation. Certainly, our storied G-men must often work in the shadows and will be privy to information that might compromise national security or subsequent investigations if the public got wind of it. The FBI, moreover, has a strict chain and authority, and agents are bound to follow orders.

Zummer's lawsuit, however, claims that he had a First Amendment right to convey his concerns to Engelhardt and that trumps the FBI rule that requires agents to obtain approval before disseminating what they discovered in their professional capacity. Zummer wants the courts not only to give him his job back, but to order the feds to publish his correspondence with Engelhardt unredacted.

The public would love to see it, and nobody knows more about the case than Zummer, who was singled out for praise by then-U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite when it was wrapped up. Polite, however, has rejected Zummer's suggestion Morel got off lightly because his attorney Ralph Capitelli was a pal of federal prosecutor Fred Harper.

But, if Zummer is off-base in accusing his colleagues of misbehavior, there can be no point in muzzling him, since the Morel investigation is history, other than to save face. The feds have fought so long and hard to suppress the letter that the public can only conclude they are running scared.

The Morel cases was fishy all along — charges were refused altogether before Polite took over — and Engelhardt's remarks leave little room for doubt that releasing the letter contains information about the workings of government that the public should be entitled to assess.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com.