“It’s important to remember that campaign funds are not public funds,” the lawyer for disgraced former St. Tammany and Washington Parish District Attorney Walter Reed said after his client was criminally charged last week.
Speaking at an unusual press conference after U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite announced that a federal grand jury had charged Reed, 68, in an 18-count indictment, defense attorney Rick Simmons emphasized the difference between this case and the raft of public corruption prosecutions we’ve seen in recent years.
Indeed, the indictment contains no accusations of quid quo pro, and with one notable exception the charges do not focus on the office Reed led for three decades.
As to whether that vindicates Reed’s pattern of greedy behavior — well, consider the specifics.
The main charges against Reed, and all the charges against his 43-year-old son Steven, stem from his use of his campaign account as a personal slush fund.
Although admittedly lightly enforced, state law requires campaign donations to go only toward election expenses. Reed, who usually ran unopposed, used his to live the good life and to support his son.
He spent $2,635 of donors’ money on a restaurant dinner for Pentecostal preachers, in the hopes they’d send civil legal work — personal injury cases and the like — to the private practice he kept on the side. A separate $4,701 check paid to the “First Pentecostal Church” in North Little Rock, Arkansas, allegedly financed another, similar dinner.
He used campaign money to throw a birthday party for an unnamed 17-year-old and a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 family members at The Dakota restaurant, and he purchased flowers for his daughter and several others.
The heart of the indictment outlines a complicated scheme to overcharge Reed’s campaign fund for services allegedly provided by Steven and to use the proceeds to pay off a $60,000 personal loan they’d co-signed. The campaign paid Steven Reed top dollar for a rudimentary anti-drug video, and for minimal catering services at a fundraiser.
In addition, Walter Reed allegedly overpaid two vendors by $5,000 apiece, then told the firms to return that money to companies his son controlled. Steven Reed also got money from his father’s campaign for a housewarming party.
The one scheme in the indictment that does involve public funds stems from well-documented allegations that Reed pocketed money when St. Tammany Parish Hospital paid for legal representation — even though it was supposed to go to the District Attorney’s Office and even though he would sometimes send an assistant district attorney to hospital meetings in his place. Polite’s office alleged that this amounted to fraud.
In all, authorities say Reed improperly skimmed off at least $365,000, including more than $100,000 from the campaign account, and committed conspiracy, wire and mail fraud, engaged in money laundering, and filed false tax statements in service of his crimes.
And don’t forget, this is also a guy who earned a roughly $200,000 public salary even as he aggressively solicited legal work on the side. And that he also asked state Rep. Harold Ritchie for a full scholarship for another son at pricey Tulane University, via the state’s controversial legislative scholarship.
This came long after revelations that lawmakers had routinely steered these scholarships to the children of the powerful and connected.
In fact, the overall picture from the indictment, as well as numerous news reports over the past several years, is that Reed pursued payoffs wherever and whenever he saw an opportunity — and had no qualms about using his elected post to enhance his personal bottom line.
Sure, maybe he looted his campaign war chest rather than public purse, but that war chest would have been empty if not for Reed’s ability to command contributions — a power that stemmed directly from his job.
The bottom line is that for years, Reed had an extraordinarily good thing going simply because he held a position that was supposed to a public trust. If that doesn’t sound like corruption, I don’t know what does.