Four years ago, restaurateur Ricky Cambre was facing both civil and criminal litigation stemming from a dispute over the Covington rental property that had housed his Ground Pat’i restaurant.
His legal woes are now behind him, and he’s $40,000 richer, thanks to a settlement with the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office over what his lawyer described as a “malicious prosecution.”
Cambre’s case raised questions about whether the threat of criminal prosecution was being used by the DA’s Office under longtime DA Walter Reed to bring pressure to bear on a civil lawsuit.
Reed, who is under federal investigation, announced last summer that he would not seek a sixth term in office, at about the same time that the settlement was made with Cambre.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, questioned at that time how a landlord-tenant dispute could have evolved into a felony prosecution — one that was not transmitted in the normal manner, through the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office.
This week, Goyeneche called the case an example of the type of alleged misconduct that law enforcement agencies are investigating in Reed’s administration. He said the settlement is a tacit acknowledgement by the former administration that it violated Cambre’s civil rights.
“The fact that there is a civil settlement doesn’t mean an end to the potential criminal violations (by the DA’s Office) that need to be reviewed and considered by the appropriate law enforcement agencies,” Goyeneche said.
Cambre was evicted in 2011 by his landlord, Barbara Marullo, who also sued him for back rent. But then her husband, Anthony, went to Reed’s office to complain about missing parts to a cooler and damage to a kitchen drain. Shortly thereafter, Cambre was arrested on counts of theft and criminal damage to property.
Anthony Marullo, a well-known figure who has owned bars in the French Quarter and still owns the French Market Restaurant and Bar on Decatur Street, is an old friend of Louis Dabdoub, who was then Reed’s chief investigator.
Anthony Marullo had been in the New Orleans Police Department at the same time as Reed, Dabdoub and Sam Gebbia, another investigator with the DA’s Office. Dabdoub and Gebbia interviewed the alleged victim.
But the criminal case against Cambre came apart when Barbara Marullo’s testimony contradicted Dabdoub’s sworn statement before 22nd Judicial District Judge August Hand.
Dabdoub had said that Cambre had admitted to Barbara Marullo that he had taken the cooler parts and filled in a kitchen drain with cement.
In a deposition taken by Cambre’s attorneys in August 2012, Marullo repeatedly denied ever telling anyone that Cambre had admitted to those actions. A recording of Dabdoub and Gebbia’s interview with Marullo shows she never mentioned an admission; to the contrary, she told investigators, “He just denies all of it.”
Information in the case file in the DA’s Office also contradicted Dabdoub’s claim that Cambre admitted to a theft. The file makes mention of a conversation with Warren Montgomery, who was then a private attorney and who briefly represented Cambre; Montgomery is now the district attorney, taking over from Reed last month.
According to the file, Montgomery told investigators that the property removed from the cooler belonged to his client and that a plumber advised Cambre to seal the drain.
Reed’s office finally dismissed the criminal case against Cambre in 2013, more than a year after Marullo’s attorneys notified Reed’s office that there were substantial errors in the arrest warrant for Cambre.
Cambre’s lawyer, Robert Stern, wrote a letter to Reed’s office last March seeking a $42,500 settlement that included $17,128 in legal fees that Cambre had incurred in fighting the charges. The rest, according to the letter, was for “mental anguish, humiliation and embarrassment.”
Cambre did not return calls for comment.
Neither Dabdoub nor Gebbia works for the District Attorney’s Office any longer. Dabdoub left before Montgomery took office in January, and Gebbia was one of three staffers whom the new DA fired during his first week on the job.
Gebbia’s truthfulness also has been challenged in a much older case, with much larger stakes. His testimony decades ago as a New Orleans police officer helped put Reginald Adams behind bars for the 1979 murder of another officer’s wife.
But last year, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro filed a motion to vacate Adams’ sentence, saying new evidence showed he was wrongfully convicted and that Gebbia had lied under oath.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.