A New Orleans attorney caught with 20 pounds of marijuana and more than $70,000 cash in his apartment has pleaded guilty to money laundering. He received a sentence of two years of probation and avoided prison time.
The attorney, Cory Morton, 37, was arrested last month after a team of federal, state and local investigators raided his Magazine Street apartment and found 16 vacuum-sealed bags of marijuana, several dozen prescription pills and envelopes of cash secreted inside “bikini-style bathing suits” and a tuxedo bag, according to a search warrant.
Morton, who worked for several years for the New Orleans law firm Taggart Morton, where his father also is employed, had been receiving shipments of marijuana from California in Express Mail parcels. Six of the packages aroused suspicion last month at the Loyola Avenue mail-processing center.
Morton’s attorney, Ralph Capitelli, declined to comment on the proceedings, which moved at a brisk pace for a case in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. Morton pleaded guilty June 13, less than one month after State Police booked him into Orleans Parish Prison on a list of drug counts. Despite the cache of marijuana found in his apartment, Morton avoided prosecution on all of the charges he faced except money laundering after agreeing to cooperate with federal authorities, according to law enforcement officials.
Brian Cazalot, the U.S. postal inspector, launched an investigation into the parcels, which had been shipped in pairs from three ZIP codes in Sacramento and had three different return addresses — two of which were fictitious — in the same handwriting. The packages, which cost a total of $276 to ship, had been addressed to Morton’s mailbox at a third-party mailing center called Pack Rat Shipping Services, on Magazine Street.
A federal judge signed a search warrant after a drug dog named Boris “alerted positive to the presence of drugs” in the parcels, according to the search warrant, and Cazalot opened the packages to find about 2 pounds of marijuana inside each.
Undercover agents delivered the packages to Pack Rat on May 14 and then kept “constant surveillance” until Morton arrived to pick them up and loaded them into an SUV. The investigators followed Morton to his apartment and then obtained a search warrant for the residence.
That afternoon, agents with the State Police, New Orleans Police Department and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration entered the apartment about 3:30 p.m. to find Morton and Molly Holmes, his live-in girlfriend.
Holmes, 32, a University of Phoenix teacher, admitted using marijuana but told the authorities she “does not know anything about the packages or what (Morton) does with the contents of the packages,” according to the search warrant. Holmes pleaded guilty last week to possession of marijuana; she was sentenced to six months of inactive probation, court records show.
The agents found cash, marijuana and drug paraphernalia in the master bedroom of the apartment. Smoking devices and grinders also were found in the apartment. In one closet, officers found a clear plastic bag containing 61 blue pills of diazepam, or Valium. In a Perlis tuxedo bag, $67,600 in cash was stuffed inside envelopes. In the kitchen, a State Police sergeant opened the refrigerator to find a plastic prescription bottle containing Marinol, a drug containing a synthetic form of cannabis.
“It is believed that Mr. Morton and Ms. Holmes used cellphones and/or computers not only to facilitate narcotic transactions, but to order controlled substances and to actively track the parcels,” Sgt. Trent Cuccia, of the State Police, wrote in the search warrant.
State Police initially booked the couple on counts of possession with intent to distribute marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of Schedule III drugs, possession of Schedule IV drugs and money laundering. Court records show no current charges against Morton in federal court.
It’s not clear from court documents what Morton’s bail was immediately following his arrest. He was given a recognizance bond on at least some of his charges, and court documents indicate that Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell consulted with Criminal District Court Judge Laurie White in setting bail.
White, who according to campaign finance reports received contributions from the Taggart Morton firm in 2009 and 2013, said in a telephone interview Thursday that a lawyer had contacted her about Morton’s case, and that “it may have been a member of the (Taggart Morton) firm.”
“I don’t recall, but I know that I did my due diligence in determining whether this person was eligible for a (recognizance bond),” White said. “I called to discuss it with the magistrate. I really just don’t remember who (the lawyer) was.”
Cantrell, the magistrate, said he did not have time Thursday to review Morton’s case file and would not comment on the bond amount, which at one point was $45,000. Morton’s bond was listed at $5,000 after prosecutors filed the lone money-laundering charge against him this month — half of the $10,000 bond set for his girlfriend on the marijuana possession charge.
Federal authorities have been increasingly confronting the distribution of illegal drugs through the mail, especially from Western states like California. After a similar sting operation, investigators arrested another local man, Kory D. Kreider, earlier this month after he allegedly accepted a large shipment of Xanax that authorities say was mailed by a sophisticated West Coast drug trafficking ring.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service intercepted 20 percent more parcels containing marijuana in fiscal year 2013 compared with the preceding year, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Morton graduated from Loyola University College of Law and began practicing at Taggart Morton in August 2002, according to his LinkedIn profile. A representative of the firm said Thursday that he “no longer works here.”
Morton is the son of James R. Morton, who, according to the law firm’s website, is head of Taggart Morton’s real estate and oil and gas sections and a past president of the New Orleans Bar Foundation.
Advocate staff writer John Simerman contributed to this report. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.