Walter Reed, the embattled district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington parishes, is tapping his sizable campaign war chest to pay for legal representation as a federal grand jury probe into his office heats up.
State ethics laws bar politicians from spending campaign money on personal uses. But lawyer Rick Simmons said the $12,278 that Reed has paid him so far is strictly for issues related to his campaign fund.
Simmons, of the New Orleans law firm Hailey McNamara Hall, said he is also representing Reed on issues related to ethics, but campaign money is not being used for that work.
Morgan Stewart, a public-relations consultant recently hired by Reed, said there is nothing unusual about a campaign committee retaining an attorney’s services.
“Campaigns nationwide, be they for the City Council or president of the United States, use attorneys for many concerns, specifically campaign financing and other campaign regulatory issues. Attorneys are called upon to give legal advice and render services regarding a number of situations,” Stewart said in an email.
Reed’s campaign records do not show any payments to lawyers during the past five years, save for the recent payment to Simmons.
But Reed’s campaign spending has become a hot news topic this year, and his use of campaign cash is apparently one of the areas the federal grand jury is exploring. The grand jury recently subpoenaed records from the Castine Center in Mandeville for events that the five-term district attorney held there.
Records show that over the past several years, Reed paid nearly $95,000 in campaign cash to companies owned by his son Steven Reed. An ex-girlfriend said Walter Reed used campaign money to pay for her birthday party at the Dakota, an upscale restaurant.
Reed announced last month that he would not seek a sixth term, but he has nonetheless tapped his campaign fund quite a bit recently, spending a total of $50,000 from April 29 to July 27 — more than any of the three candidates who are running to succeed him. His expenditures included advertising, an opinion poll and the hiring of Stewart, as well as retaining Simmons. He still has almost $270,000 in the account.
Though state law doesn’t allow candidates to use campaign funds for personal expenses, Reed might be able to justify spending funds on legal fees. It’s a gray area and depends on the precise circumstances, said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council.
“I wish it were a black-and-white issue, but it’s not,” he said.
The key question that the state Board of Ethics asks is whether a legal expense is related to a campaign or to preparing for a future race, he said.
“That’s the issue that the Board of Ethics keeps coming back to and that the courts keep coming back to,” Scott said. “The Board of Ethics has tended to rule pretty conservatively on it. They tend to look skeptically at the use of campaign funds to pay for legal fees.”
State law also has broad language that allows elected officials to use campaign funds to defend themselves against criminal charges that are related to “the holding of public office.”
The Ethics Board’s rulings on the question of legal expenditures have likewise varied, adding to the murkiness of the question. For example, the board ruled that Ouachita Parish Sheriff Royce Toney couldn’t use his campaign funds to pay legal fees in connection with criminal charges against him in a federal indictment. The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal upheld that decision in May.
In that case, the board said the use of campaign money would be improper because “the actions taken (in) this particular case were not related to the holding of Sheriff Toney’s public office.” Toney had sought the ruling before tapping his campaign fund.
The appellate court said no statute defines what is related to “the holding of public office.” Toney’s guilty plea in the case seemed to persuade the panel that the spending was “prohibited as unrelated to the holding of public office.”
Kathleen Allen, administrator for the Louisiana Board of Ethics, provided a list of cases from 1992 to 2009 that involved rulings on the use of campaign funds to pay legal fees. The board allowed such spending in 10 cases and prohibited it in six.
Stewart noted several instances in which the Ethics Board allowed campaign funds to be spent on legal fees, including the case of then-Iberia Parish President Will Langlinais, who was allowed in May 2007 to use campaign money to prepare a response to a legislative audit.
But that’s only part of the story on Langlinais. In September 2007, the board said he couldn’t use his funds to pay legal fees to defend civil and criminal lawsuits that arose from the audit. Langlinais entered a guilty plea to malfeasance in office, according to the board’s letter, which said that expenditure “is not a use related to his campaign or the holding of public office.”
Even though the Ethics Board has sometimes allowed officials to dip into campaign funds for legal defense, not every politician who has run into trouble has done so.
Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who served 10 years in federal prison for racketeering, says that he paid his own legal fees after his first two trials, in 1985 and 1986. He could have sought reimbursement for legal costs — $500,000 to $600,0000 — because he was acquitted. State law allows politicians to get reimbursed after acquittal if the accusations related to their campaign or official duties.
“The taxpayers paid nothing for my defense,” Edwards said.
But during his 2001 trial, when he was found guilty, Edwards was out of office and didn’t have a campaign fund, so it wasn’t an option.
Reed has not been charged with any crime. But Stewart said extensive media coverage has raised issues as to the legality of Reed’s campaign spending, and Simmons was thus retained as counsel for the campaign fund. “Obtaining appropriate assistance to look into such matters requires legal representation,” Stewart wrote.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Aug. 14 to correct the dates of former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ first two trials.
Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report. Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter at @spagonesadvocat.