To hear his lawyer tell it, Walter Reed’s life was one long campaign.
Reed, the former North Shore district attorney on federal trial for allegedly living large off his campaign account and committing other possible offenses, never really had to worry about his reelection during his five terms in office. Yet according to Monday’s opening argument by his lawyer, Rick Simmons, Reed was always looking for ways to shore up his political standing in St. Tammany and Washington Parishes. So when he entertained friends and relatives, he had every reason to charge the costs to his campaign account, under a provision that allows political donations to go not just toward electioneering but also for expenses related to holding public office.
“Family and friends get you elected,” Simmons told the jury.
Among Reed’s additional justifications for treating lavish restaurant meals that Reed hosted as campaign expenses, Simmons said, was the fact that he picked local businesses owned and staffed by potential voters to patronize. And in an argument that echoes former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin’s excuse for using his city credit card to pick up family meals, Simmons noted that Reed would often be approached by constituents during these outings.
As for a large open house for his new condo that Reed charged to the campaign, Simmons described that as more of a “patron party” designed to offer donors and other politicians something of a personal touch.
The same theory applies to the Reed campaign’s $25,000 contribution to the church of Washington Parish pastor Jerry Wayne Cox, Simmons said, because politicians always need to court pastors and other community leaders. Never mind that prosecutors say the money amounted to a cut of the business Cox steered toward Reed’s personal legal practice, or that Cox, who has pleaded guilty to unrelated offenses, is expecting to testify for the prosecution.
Whether any of this amounts to a crime, particularly a federal one, is for the jury to decide once the rest of the trial plays out. Campaign finance is subject to state law, but prosecutors argue that Reed violated federal law by defrauding contributors and not paying taxes on the amount he put to personal use.
And in fact, plenty of other politicians have used their campaign funds for what most lay people would categorize as less-than-political expenses without facing the prospect of prison. Unlike those meals Nagin charged, this was not public money, a fact that Simmons repeatedly emphasized during his opening.
Regardless of the criminality or lack thereof, though, Simmons’ opening inadvertently helped prove at least one point that Assistant U.S. Attorney Jordan Ginsberg sought to make in his own opening. Ginsberg argued that, over many years of being one of the region’s most powerful players, Reed developed an outsized sense of entitlement.
“He was, in many effects, a king,” Ginsberg argued. Whether or not his client’s ultimately convicted, Reed’s own lawyer helped make the case that he acted like it.
‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.