An FBI spokeswoman acknowledged Tuesday that the agency is looking into a secretly taped conversation last week between Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo and challenger Marie Williams, in which Marullo is heard pledging to back the local attorney for a magistrate commissioner’s post while discussing her possible exit from the race.
“I can confirm that we are aware of the matter and reviewing the information,” said Mary Beth Romig Haskins, spokeswoman for the FBI’s New Orleans office.
The conversation last Wednesday at Mandina’s, a Mid-City restaurant, was surreptitiously recorded with involvement from WDSU-TV. Travers Mackel, a reporter with the station, confronted Marullo as he left the restaurant with questions about whether he had pledged to back Williams for a $75,000 post as one of four magistrate commissioners. Marullo denied it.
Marullo, the longest-serving judge in Louisiana at age 74, can be heard in the recorded conversation repeatedly saying he is only one vote among the dozen judges who appoint the four magistrate commissioners. But he also says he will lobby for Williams when a post comes up.
“I can’t guarantee it because it takes a majority of the court. That’s what I’m saying. But I’ll tell you, I’ll vote for you,” he says.
Later, Marullo adds, “It’s seven people. If I could go say, ‘Six other people, please do this,’ that’s what I can do.”
“So it doesn’t matter if you want me in or out,” Williams replies.
“No. I want you out,” the judge responds.
Marullo’s camp doesn’t dispute the accuracy of the recording, but says it was incomplete.
It’s unclear what the FBI’s interest in the tape might be. But if Marullo offered his support for a job for Williams in direct exchange for her exit from the race, he may have violated the state’s election code, which bars people from giving or offering “directly or indirectly, any money or any thing of ... value to a candidate for public office for the purpose of securing the candidate’s withdrawal from an election.” He also may have run afoul of state judicial canons.
Mackel said Tuesday that he couldn’t discuss whether the TV station wired up Williams or whether the FBI had requested the recording from the station. News Director Jonathan Shelley said the station has had “no official communication” with the FBI.
In a phone interview with The New Orleans Advocate, Williams said she had been pestered to get out of the race by Marullo’s camp. She said she grew fed up and decided to tape a phone call with Sonja “Lady” Dedais, a self-styled political consultant who once ran for mayor and wound up brokering the meeting with Marullo.
In the taped call, which WDSU-TV posted online, Williams asks Dedais about the commissioner post and just who was offering it.
“Let me tell you something. You will become a commissioner,” Dedais says.
“OK, but they want me to get out of the race, though. Is that correct?” Williams responds.
“That would be part of the …,” Dedais says.
“Agreement,” Williams interjects.
“Probably agreement,” Dedais responds. “It’s what you’re looking for.”
Williams said “authorities” were involved in taping her conversations but declined to say which ones.
“We recorded all the phone conversations, and then I was wired, and we got him on tape offering me (the post) to get out of the race. Other than that, I can’t go into detail,”
“I’m not sitting in the back of the bus. I’m going to expose them. People in this city are tired of the politics. I’m tired of it,” she said.
“I got tired of the harassment, tired of being played like I’m stupid, like I’m dumb. My young generation, we were taught to use your education to get where you’re at, not buying people out. I played along with them. Whatever it took, I didn’t care. It wasn’t about the race. It was about what’s right and wrong.
“What do I have to lose? I tried to make them think I was naive and nice. I wanted him to talk to me and give me the information. They had no idea who they were messing with.”
Williams, a former state administrative law judge, lost a race for a seat on the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court in 2010. She also ran for a 2nd City Court judgeship in 2012.
In the taped call, she starts by telling Marullo she had no idea when she entered the race that he was seeking another term.
“I didn’t know that you qualified and that five people got in the race until the next day!” she says in the recording. “My eyes were like, what? You gotta be kidding me.”
In a statement late Monday, Marullo said he never offered Williams anything. To bolster that claim, he said that at the end of the conversation, Williams added, “You mean I get out and walk away with nothing?”
That comment does not appear on the recording. Marullo’s campaign manager, Bill Allerton, said it came later.
Allerton said Marullo’s pledge to cast his vote for Williams as a magistrate commissioner — a $75,000-a-year part-time job — came when he thought Williams had decided on her own to bow out of the race, and before the judge realized she was seeking pay dirt.
“He understands as the meeting progresses that she hasn’t in fact withdrawn from the race, and this is, in effect, a quid pro quo,” Allerton said. “And when it was clear to him that the purpose was to get a quid pro quo, that’s when he said, ‘Wait a second. I’m not going to break the law, and I’m out of here.’ ”
Marullo’s camp distanced itself from Dedais on Tuesday, saying she has played no role in the campaign other than as an apparent supporter.
“She has not been paid, and I don’t believe there’s any intention of paying her. ... I know he feels like the two of them set him up,” said Edwin “Win” Stoutz, Marullo’s campaign finance chairman.
For her part, Dedais said Williams played her. Dedais described herself as a volunteer for Marullo’s campaign.
“The judge didn’t ask me to set up no meeting. This girl asked me to meet with the judge,” Dedais said. “I didn’t even know she was going to hit the judge with that question. I just told him, ‘Hey, Marie wants to get out of the race. She’d like to know if you’d like to have lunch with her,’ ” Dedais said.
“It’s a big political ploy. ‘Nobody’s offering you a damn thing,’ I told her.”
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, pointed to the provision in the state election code that bars candidates from giving things “of apparent present or prospective value to a candidate for public office” for a promise from that candidate to withdraw.
Such horse-trading may be common practice, Goyeneche said, but is rarely caught on tape. He called for a thorough investigation by state or federal agencies.
“The public was just exposed to a way that, unfortunately, politics has been conducted. This isn’t unique to the judiciary, but the fact it involves a judicial candidate probably makes it even more egregious and disconcerting,” Goyeneche said.
“This is the dirty underbelly of Louisiana politics, and it’s been captured on tape now. It’s not a defense that this is the way things have always been done.”
Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino said the conversation “raises questions,” citing a state judicial canon that prohibits judges or judicial candidates “in connection with cases, controversies, or issues that are likely to come before the court,” from making “pledges, promises, or commitments that are inconsistent with the impartial performance of the adjudicative duties of judicial office.”
He said a commitment to vote for someone as a magistrate commissioner would arguably violate that rule.
Along with Williams, former Orleans Parish prosecutor Graham Bosworth remains in the race for Marullo’s Section D seat, which he has held for 40 years.
Two other candidates dropped out after the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to Marullo’s eligibility to run again for the office — a challenge that a district court judge and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal rejected.
The election is set for Nov. 4.