Though the U.S. Attorney’s Office last year formally declined to bring charges in a federal probe into possible misconduct by former St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel, the case is getting a fresh look from the office, according to a source with knowledge of the case.
It’s not clear whether the revival of the Morel case — which centers on allegations that Morel may have sought sexual favors from women in exchange for breaks on criminal cases — means that an indictment is in the works. Nor is it clear whether the feds have managed to collect new evidence in the months since it was declined, or whether the second go-round was sparked by a change in leadership and various other personnel shifts in the office.
When asked about the change in status, Morel’s lawyer, Ralph Capitelli, confirmed that he had been alerted the case would get another look.
“I was recently advised by members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office that an attorney who was not involved in the original decision to decline this matter is looking at the file to see if that original decision should be changed,” Capitelli said.
U.S. Attorney Ken Polite’s office declined to comment on the case.
The case against Morel appeared to suffer a devastating blow last year when Danelle Keim, 27, who was expected to be a key witness, died of a drug overdose.
The St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office has confirmed that on April 16, 2010, Keim called 911 to complain that Morel had accosted her during a visit to her home in St. Rose. The office has refused to make the tape public.
Capitelli last year announced that he had been told by a high-level federal official that the FBI had turned over the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which had reviewed the case and decided not to prosecute. Capitelli declined to name the official but said the official “had total knowledge of the investigation.”
Despite that setback — which typically signals the end of a probe — the FBI quietly continued its investigation. In September, the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office declined to turn over a public record to The New Orleans Advocate, citing the continuing probe. Capt. Pat Yoes told the newspaper that the FBI “continues to assert that this document is part of an ongoing investigation.”
Capitelli said the fact that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined the case once “means that the investigative material that had been developed by the FBI was totally insufficient to proceed further.” He said he does not believe the bureau has uncovered any significant new evidence implicating Morel and therefore believes the U.S. Attorney’s Office should and will decline the case a second time.
“I believe there should be no change after this review of the initial decision because that original decision was the unanimous decision made by all the attorneys in the original supervisory chain at the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” then led by interim U.S. Attorney Dana Boente, Capitelli said.
“Why this review is being done, I do not know, but I do know that in my 40-plus years of doing criminal law both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney, this is highly unusual,” Capitelli said. “I also believe that the integrity and ability of the original attorneys, who made what I believe was clearly the correct decision, should not be in question even though someone has been successful in pushing for this review.”
Nola.com reported last year that Keim’s call to 911 in 2010, claiming she was being assaulted, came as Morel visited her home on the pretext of helping take care of a pending criminal case against Keim, who struggled with drug abuse.
Capitelli said Morel strenuously denies accosting Keim. He declined to answer questions about whether Morel visited her house personally — an unusual practice for a district attorney dealing with a criminal defendant — or whether Morel had a habit of making such home visits.
He also raised questions about whether the tape of the 911 call actually exists. The Sheriff’s Office has said such a tape does exist, but it has refused to release it, citing the ongoing investigation.
“If such a tape is genuine, why was it leaked to nola.com, was it by a law enforcement officer, and why has such a recording never to this day been provided to me on behalf of my client?” Capitelli asked.
In addition to the 911 tape, the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office turned over to the FBI a second recording, this one a tape of a jailhouse phone call from Keim’s then-boyfriend, Errol Falcon Jr., to Keim. In that call, Falcon — who faced burglary charges — allegedly told Keim the district attorney had offered him leniency in exchange for sexual favors to be performed by Keim. Falcon was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Keim had been interviewed by the FBI before she died. If Morel is charged in the case, there will likely be a legal skirmish over whether her claims are admissible.
It’s not clear what other evidence the feds have gathered on Morel. In early 2013, the FBI subpoenaed roughly 1,200 DWI case records from the St. Charles Parish clerk of court in what appeared to be a search for other potential victims. Whether those records provided more evidence is unknown.