An embattled Walter Reed announced Tuesday that he will not seek a sixth term as the district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington parishes, a move that comes amid a federal grand jury probe and intense media focus on his use of campaign funds and his public and private work.
Reed blamed the media in a two-page statement, saying that an “endless series of allegations’’ regarding his character had created “unwarranted and obtrusive disruptions in the function of my office.’’
“As such it has become apparent to me that such time-consuming disruptions will continue,’’ he said. “They are not fair to me or the people of St. Tammany and Washington parishes, who have become accustomed to an aggressive and effective district attorney fully able to focus on the important work of his office.’’
Reed called a mandatory noon meeting of his staff Tuesday. The doors to the District Attorney’s Office, located on the second floor of the St. Tammany Justice Center, were locked shortly before noon, and office workers posted signs saying the office would be closed until 2 p.m.
Prosecutors who had trials scheduled were advised to tell judges they would need a long break, according to a source who asked not to be identified.
Latecomers to the meeting encountered locked front doors and had to pull out cellphones to get admitted through a side entrance. At one point, Reed himself made a brief appearance in the outer office to admit a straggler.
Staffers waited about half an hour for their boss to appear, the source said, and the mood was tense and nervous.
When Reed did enter the room, a source said, he delivered the news with a far more blistering attack on the media than he made publicly, calling local journalists “whores and prostitutes.’’ He did not mention the federal grand jury that has been convened to investigate his activities, but instead attributed his decision to retire from elected office entirely to negative news reports, and he instructed employees not to speak to reporters.
Morgan Stewart, a public relations consultant hired by Reed last week, said the district attorney thanked his staff for their service and told them he was “proud to have worked with this group, the best district attorney’s staff in the state.’’
Reed told employees he would not be endorsing a candidate in the race to succeed him and encouraged them to not involve themselves in any of the campaigns, Stewart said.
He did, however, speak highly of two of the three candidates, Slidell lawyer Alan Black and St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Brian Trainor, whom he described as friends, the source said.
Covington attorney Roy Burns, who also is running for the office, showed up at the courthouse minutes after the meeting broke up and asserted that Reed was telling people “that they (Black and Trainor) were friends, and I was not a friend.’’
The meeting, which included sandwiches from Acquistapace’s Supermarket, broke up about 1:20 p.m. Reed told a few stories about his family and at times became emotional, the source said. Rick Wood, a longtime spokesman for the office, offered a tearful prayer.
Stewart issued a statement Tuesday night saying, “The entire day was extremely emotional for Mr. Reed. As DA, Mr. Reed has a terrific track record. Clearly, when St. Tammany and Washington parishes can legitimately claim to be two of the safest parishes in the state, his record as the parishes’ chief prosecutor stands on its own. In the end, it’s not easy for any elected official with a great track record to say goodbye after 30 years of effectively serving the people, especially amid repeated accusations when he has not been charged with a crime.”
Reed drove away from the courthouse in a gray Mercedes, with Stewart in the passenger seat.
He has not disclosed what his plans are following his term of office, which ends Jan. 11, Stewart said.
The state District Attorneys Association could not be reached Tuesday to determine what Reed’s pension will be. But with 30 years of service, the 68-year-old is fully vested and will likely receive a payment close to his annual salary, which has been variously reported as $198,814 and $214,000. He is the highest-paid district attorney in Louisiana.
He was first elected in 1984, defeating incumbent Marion Farmer. Since then, he has maintained a lock on the office, drawing opposition only once in his tenure. Former U.S. Attorney John Volz challenged him and lost in 1996.
With FBI agents descending on his office and at least two subpoenas being issued by a federal grand jury, the once unassailable Reed clearly seemed vulnerable, and candidates began declaring they planned to run in the Nov. 4 election.
Trainor announced his candidacy Monday, a day before Reed bowed out. Now chief deputy for the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, Trainor worked eight years as an assistant DA under Reed and was the first candidate with ties to his administration to jump into the race.
Qualifying for the race begins Aug. 20.
Reed’s campaign spending is just one of the areas that the federal grand jury apparently is probing.
A subpoena was sent in May to the Castine Center in Mandeville seeking records about fundraising events held there from January 2008 to the present. Reed held events there in July 2008, June 2011 and September 2012.
Reed’s son, Steven Reed, was paid $29,400 by his father’s campaign in connection with those events. Reed and his son gave contradictory explanations as to what services were provided, with a spokesman for the district attorney saying Steven Reed supplied alcohol using his bar’s liquor license. The spokesman eventually backtracked and said his explanation might have been “unintendedly inaccurate,” but he never clarified what Steven Reed actually did.
Steven Reed said he provided only bar setup and service.
Claire Bradley, a former girlfriend of Reed, also told The New Orleans Advocate that she and her son were paid by the campaign for work they didn’t do and that Reed threw her a lavish birthday party financed by campaign cash. Reed spokesman Wood said the party was a planning meeting for a golf fundraiser.
Reed’s work for the St. Tammany Parish Hospital also is getting attention from federal investigators. Reed, who was paid $30,000 a year to attend hospital board meetings and provide legal advice, recently resigned from that position, which he had held for 20 years. He has said his work with the hospital was as a private lawyer. However, hospital administrator Patti Ellish said the hospital’s arrangement was with the District Attorney’s Office, noting that when Reed could not attend a meeting, he sent Assistant District Attorney Leo Hemelt in his place. It is not clear how Hemelt was paid for that work.
Hemelt was served a subpoena while he was vacationing in Florida last month. He informed Reed in early June that he planned to retire Aug. 1.
Reed’s brother, Richard Reed, also worked for St. Tammany Parish Hospital, in a position that a series of internal hospital emails obtained by nola.com and Fox 8 suggested was created for him.
The hospital, which initially rejected a public-records request from The New Orleans Advocate seeking information on Richard Reed’s employment, capitulated on Tuesday, following an exchange with the newspaper’s lawyers.
Reed was hired in 2002 as a community bereavement coordinator at $18 an hour, the hospital disclosed. His job title later changed to office clerk and to mailroom clerk. He was moved to office clerk again on Feb. 9. His ending salary, at his resignation on June 27, was $18 an hour — or $37,440 a year based on a 40-hour workweek.
Reed expressed outrage in a statement last week that his brother’s employment had been questioned, saying he did not attempt to influence any personnel decisions by the hospital. He said his brother chose to leave his job to avoid distractions to the hospital. However, Richard Reed actually submitted his letter of resignation prior to the initial report about his job by nola.com and Fox 8.
News of Reed’s announcement quickly filtered out Tuesday, and Parish President Pat Brister didn’t hesitate to call his decision “the right thing to do for this parish,” opening the way for “an open and honest discussion from DA candidates about the future of St. Tammany Parish.”
She said, “With a cloud of alleged misconduct hanging over that office, it makes it difficult to conduct the people’s business day to day.’’
St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain praised Reed’s team, noting that Reed has been the DA through most of Strain’s 32-year career in law enforcement.
“I can honestly say that our parish is a better place for Walter’s efforts, and he and his family will be in my thoughts and prayers,’’ the sheriff said in a statement that went on to endorse Trainor’s candidacy.
The candidates in the DA’s race also were quick to comment. Black said Reed made the “right decision today.”
Trainor said his experience with the DA’s and sheriff’s offices has shown him the importance of cooperation between the two agencies. “I look forward to the campaign ahead and to outlining my vision for ensuring a fair, efficient and honest District Attorney’s Office,’’ he said.
Burns, who has come out swinging in the race, issued a statement last week that blasted Reed’s criticism of the media — a theme he sounded again on Tuesday. “Whatever Walter’s failings, his decision to end his tenure quietly is the best thing for our parishes,’’ Burns said. “The people need and deserve a justice system they can trust, and the recent federal inquiry into undisclosed allegations of wrongdoing in his administration has irrevocably clouded that trust.”
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.