While many eyes were on the long-awaited end to the epic Danziger Bridge case last Wednesday, something else extraordinary was happening at the federal courthouse in downtown New Orleans. Even as the five former New Orleans officers prepared to plead guilty in the high-profile post-Katrina shootings, two other former law enforcement officials faced allegations that they had crossed a different sort of line.
And not just any lawmen; I’m talking about two district attorneys, each of whom presided over their respective courthouses for more than three decades.
Imagine what all those people they put away must be thinking.
Actually, “lorded over” might be a better phrase than “presided over.” For if the cases against former St. Charles Parish DA Harry Morel and Walter Reed, the longtime top prosecutor in St. Tammany and Washington parishes, have one thing in common, it’s that the two central players were masters at the art of entitlement.
There are, of course, major differences. One is that Morel has admitted guilt, albeit to a relatively minor charge, while Reed continues to contend that he broke no law. Another is that Morel’s crime focuses on sex and the allegations against Reed are about money.
Morel pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt to one count of obstruction of justice. Specifically, he confessed to directing a woman to destroy a digital memory card that investigators were seeking. The woman had accused Morel of making inappropriate sexual advances as she sought his help, and the card held pictures of a meeting between the two that Morel hoped to cover up.
Meanwhile, one floor up in U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon’s courtroom, Reed endured Day Three of his trial on a 19-count indictment centering on allegations that he’d used his campaign fund for all manner of personal expenses, and pocketed legal fees paid by St. Tammany Parish Hospital that should have gone to his office.
Reed is accused of throwing lavish parties and restaurant dinners on his campaign account, of improperly funneling some of that money to his grown son through a series of bogus transactions or inflated bills, of wining and dining a local pastor who steered clients to Reed’s private personal injury practice, and of keeping the money that the hospital paid for him and his subordinates to provide legal representation, a duty that fell under his official job description.
Defense attorney Rick Simmons has explained away Reed’s use of money he collected from donors looking for an “in” with a powerful official as allowable expenses stemming from the fact that he held public office.
“Friends and family get you elected,” Simmons said during his opening statement.
As for the hospital-related counts, Simmons chalked the whole matter up to a misunderstanding and noted that his client had disclosed the income publicly.
If the indictment paints Reed as a serial offender, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite made it clear at a news conference that prosecutors see Morel as having abused his public position just as much for just as long.
Speaking to reporters after Morel entered his plea, Polite described him as a “sexual predator” who victimized more than 20 women who sought leniency from his office over two decades, women who needed help enforcing child support orders, who faced charges themselves or had children who did.
“Harry Morel could make things go away, but he wanted sexual acts in exchange,” Polite said. For the record, Morel’s attorney, Ralph Capitelli, has angrily denied that characterization.
Morel faced just the single charge, the prosecutor said, because he’s 73 and has health concerns, and also due to hearsay concerns and questions over whether the suggested quid pro quo was suitably explicit. The woman at the center of the obstruction charge died several years ago.
Because Reed’s trial is ongoing, Polite declined to comment on the unusual confluence of prosecutions. But something he said about Morel could easily apply to Reed as well, not to mention the many other former power brokers who’ve passed through the courthouse in recent years.
“This unfortunately, for many hamlets in this state of Louisiana, is a problem where the concentration of power is in the hands of certain individuals, and the public is oftentimes viewed as being at the mercy of these individuals,” he said. “This is not a unique circumstance” to St. Charles Parish.
Nor, he might have added, to St. Tammany and Washington either.