St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed has resigned as outside legal counsel for the board of St. Tammany Parish Hospital, a $30,000-a-year gig that he says in his resignation letter he has held for 20 years.
Reed, who did not return calls for comment, said in Tuesday’s letter that he hopes his resignation will allow the board to focus on providing quality health care “without the unnecessary distractions of the past several weeks.”
While Reed did not identify those “distractions,” his private law practice has come under recent media scrutiny, including his relationship with the hospital and an instance in which he recused the St. Tammany District Attorney’s Office from a criminal case so he could profit from civil litigation after two women were killed in an accident with an 18-wheeler.
Reed has said he is “of counsel” with McCranie Sistrunk, the firm that represented the women’s families in a $2.4 million settlement that Reed bragged about in a magazine article aimed at Pentecostals.
Reed, who is the highest-paid district attorney in the state, earns more than $100,000 a year from his private law practice, according to disclosure forms filed with the state Board of Ethics, which does not require officials to specify the exact amount of outside income they earn. But he listed the money he makes from the hospital in a category of its own, making it unclear whether his work for the public, not-for-profit hospital was part of his public office or his private practice, which he described as getting legal and consulting fees.
Reed and the hospital contributed to that confusion by offering contradictory explanations. Reed told The Times-Picayune/nola.com that he did the work as a private lawyer. But hospital administrator Patti Ellish told The New Orleans Advocate on May 9 that “Walter Reed is on retainer for legal services as the district attorney” and noted that when Reed can’t attend a hospital board meeting, he sends a subordinate from his office in his place.
In a prepared statement to The Advocate, Ellish said Reed “attends the hospital’s board meetings and provides legal counsel on matters and topics.”
Ellish said the hospital did not have a contract with Reed. The board also has another lawyer, Bill Jones, who acts as its general counsel.
Checks from 2005 through March 2014 that The New Orleans Advocate obtained through a public-records request show the hospital paid Reed $2,500 per month. The checks were made out to “Reed, Walter’’ at 701 N. Columbia Street — the address of the St. Tammany Justice Center, where the district attorney’s office is located.
Prior to May 2007, the checks are endorsed with a stamp that reads “For Deposit/Walter P. Reed/District Attorney.” Thereafter, they are endorsed only with a “For Deposit Only’’ stamp or, in a few cases, a written signature.
St. Tammany Parish Hospital Board President John Evans said he had no comment on the resignation, which was announced at the hospital’s monthly board meeting Wednesday.
Reed did not attend the meeting, nor did he send an employee of the District Attorney’s Office in his place. His letter says his resignation is effective immediately, although he offered to assist the board in a transition to new counsel at no cost.
Board member Greg Lemons, the mayor of Abita Springs, said he learned of the resignation from the letter. He was not personally aware of whether Reed represented the board as district attorney or in his personal capacity, Lemons said, since the arrangement was in place before he joined the board.
“He absolutely provided us with helpful legal advice, on a couple of occasions that I can think of,” Lemons said, adding that he thinks the board is going to “wait and see for a while” on replacing Reed.
Reed’s letter mentions a phone call Friday to Evans in which he “expressed my intention to resign as outside legal counsel to the board of St. Tammany Parish Hospital.’’
St. Tammany Parish Hospital is not alone in turning to the District Attorney’s Office for legal advice. Slidell Memorial Hospital, which also is a public, not-for-profit hospital governed by a hospital service district, has had a member of Reed’s staff as its full-time attorney since 2003. But in that case, the District Attorney’s Office is reimbursed for the services of its salaried employee.
Sam Caruso Jr., director of business development for Slidell Memorial, provided The New Orleans Advocate with a copy of a letter signed by Reed that confirms the agreement to use Donald Kearns as general counsel.
“The Hospital Service District will compensate the District Attorney’s Office in the amount of $171,392 during the year 2014,” the letter says in part. Kearns “will continue to be employed by the District Attorney’s Office and will receive salary and benefits from the District Attorney’s Office,” it says.
Caruso said Kearns has been practicing health care law for more than 15 years and is Slidell Memorial’s only attorney.
It’s not clear what expertise Reed has in health care law.
An email from W.J. “Dub” Lane, chairman of Slidell Memorial’s board, said the state Legislature initially required the board’s relationship to be with the District Attorney’s Office, but that requirement was subsequently relaxed.
“The board was satisfied with the services of Mr. Kearns and our agreement with the DA, so the board chose to continue that relationship,” he wrote.
The board sets the contract price based on advice from a consultant, he said.
Reed, who has been in office nearly 30 years, will face re-election in November if he decides to seek another term. While his plans are not clear, he has a large war chest and aggressively raises campaign funds.
His spending of that money, including payments to his son’s companies and a former girlfriend, also has been the target of recent news coverage.
Reed has faced a challenger only one time since becoming district attorney. Former U.S. Attorney John Volz ran against him in 1996. Volz criticized Reed for side deals like the hospital post, saying he wouldn’t use the office’s clout to land such contracts with public bodies.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.