Walter Reed was elected six times to serve the people of St. Tammany and Washington parishes as district attorney for the 22nd Judicial District, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jordan Ginsberg told the jury in the public corruption trial that began Monday. But for at least the past 10 years, the federal prosecutor said, Reed chose to serve himself.
Ginsberg took the jury of six men and six women through the 19-count indictment against Reed in his opening statement Monday afternoon, saying that Reed used his campaign war chest as a piggy bank to woo women and reel in legal clients. And, in the most egregious use of the campaign fund, the government said, Reed funneled money to his son and co-defendant, Steven Reed, in part to pay off a loan for which the elder Reed was the guarantor.
Reed was able to get away with his greed-driven wrongdoing so long because he was the most powerful politician on the north shore, Ginsberg said, because of his office and his lengthy tenure.
But defense attorney Richard Simmons pointed to that same political position — and what it entails — again and again in his opening statement, sometimes thumping the lectern for emphasis. Simmons argued that events like a large housewarming party Reed threw are typical of what politicians do to maintain support.
Campaign donations are not public money, Simmons said, echoing an argument he first sounded when Reed was indicted a year ago, and Reed could spend them in accordance with state law.
That meant he could spend campaign cash not only on efforts to get re-elected but also on other items related to the holding of office, Simmons said. Just because some events included family and friends didn’t mean they weren’t political in nature. “Family and friends get you elected,” Simmons said.
As for that April 14, 2012, housewarming party, Simmons said it clearly was not a personal event. Speeches and fundraising aren’t necessary ingredients for an event to be political, he said. The band Vince Vance and the Valiants performed, and more than 100 people attended, including many public officials.
“There are a bunch of photographs. You tell me this isn’t about politics,” he said.
“They have blinders on,” he said of the prosecution.
Glenn Burns, the attorney for Steven Reed, made the same point, calling it “federal vision,” which he defined as the refusal to consider anything that doesn’t fit the prosecution’s theory of the case. His client, he said, is collateral damage in the government’s no-holds-barred effort to get Walter Reed.
During questioning of potential jurors, one of whom was a chef, Ginsberg said that “nice restaurants” will be the subject of a lot of testimony.
That was clear in his opening statement, when he talked about a $6,400 party at La Provence for Reed’s nephew and a birthday party for the son of his then-girlfriend.
After each example, Ginsberg noted that Reed “paid for it out of the campaign,” including what he described as efforts to “flatter, impress and pursue women.”
Simmons said the prosecution was trying to “trash up the defendant” by referring to women. He also defended Reed’s spending habits, saying that he patronized businesses in his district.
The second prong of the case against Reed deals with his work for St. Tammany Parish Hospital. The government contends that Reed took money that was intended for the District Attorney’s Office and deposited it in his own bank account.
Two potential witnesses whose names were mentioned to prospective jurors likely will be called in connection with this aspect of the case: Lane Carson, who as an assistant district attorney provided legal advice to the hospital’s board before Reed began attending its meetings, and Leo Hemelt, a former assistant district attorney who filled in when Reed could not attend meetings.
When media pressure was at its peak, Ginsberg said, Reed tried to pressure Hemelt to sign a false affidavit concerning his work. “He pressured that man to lie to save his own skin,” the prosecutor said.
Simmons disagreed with that accusation, saying there was no intent to make Hemelt sign a false affidavit, characterizing the situation as a misunderstanding.
As for Reed’s relationship with the hospital, Simmons stressed that Reed declared the income he made from the hospital on financial disclosure forms, making no effort to conceal it.
He made a similar argument concerning allegations that Reed made false statements on his tax returns, saying Reed had declared $500,000 in taxes due for the years targeted.
“He paid a half-a-million and owes another $42,000. This is a civil matter, ladies and gentlemen,” Simmons said.
Another potential witness, Jerry Wayne Cox, also earned a spot in the opening arguments, with Ginsberg describing the relationship between Reed and the Pentecostal preacher as one of mutual back-scratching.
Cox helped Reed drum up personal-injury clients, Ginsberg said, and Reed used campaign money to pay for dinners for other preachers and their wives, one in Washington Parish and another at a retreat in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Reed asked the law firm with which he was affiliated to reimburse him personally for that steak dinner, noting in his memo that it had already produced one good case.
“Meanwhile, he never told them he had paid (for the dinner) from the campaign. He double-dipped,” Ginsberg said.
Cox, meanwhile, sought a piece of the action himself, initially getting rebuffed by the law firm, McCranie Sistrunk, but getting another answer from Reed, who gave a $25,000 donation to Cox’s church, Faith Tabernacle.
Reed’s lawyer argued that in rural areas like Washington Parish, the support of churches like Faith Tabernacle is essential for politicians, and the donation was an appropriate use of political cash. “The $25,000 didn’t go in Cox’s pocket; it went for a gym,” he said.
Ginsberg’s most scathing comments were directed at actions of both defendants designed to funnel money to the younger Reed. Walter and Steven Reed “made crime a family business,” he said.
“We will show that Walter Reed was a corrupt district attorney,” he said, calling his actions selfish. “His son, Steven, inherited his father’s greed.”
He outlined the alleged conspiracy to provide $29,400 in campaign funds to Steven Reed by getting two service providers at a large fundraiser, known as the “America event,” to provide money to two companies under the control of the younger Reed.
Ginsberg said the pair’s changing stories about what services Steven Reed provided as well as fake invoices will figure in the evidence.
But Steven Reed’s lawyer said his client was concerned about getting in trouble for his role at the event because he did not have a caterer’s license.
Ginsberg also promised to put a film expert on the stand who he said will testify about a video that Reed paid his son $15,000 from his campaign fund to make. Ginsberg said most of the jurors could do a better job with their cellphones.
He summed up the government’s opening by pointing to the power of the District Attorney’s Office and the lack of oversight of what happens there. Reed was the highest-paid district attorney in the state, he said, with a salary he himself set. But it was not enough for him.
“He was the highest law enforcement official in the area — entrusted to know, follow and enforce the law. He was the fox, and he was guarding the henhouse.
“He got away with it for a very long time. But that’s about to change.”
Simmons offered an alternate portrait, saying his client, who is about to turn 70, has a long history in law enforcement, beginning as an undercover narcotics officer with a “very impressive record.” He then went to law school and became an assistant U.S. attorney fighting drugs and corruption.
“He’s not corrupt; he’s not,” Simmons said.
“What this case is about is a prosecution after media coverage,” Simmons said. “They went out and tried to find a crime. ... There were mistakes, but no basis for a criminal conviction.”
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.