Walter Reed spent his life putting people behind bars: first as a New Orleans cop, then as a federal prosecutor and finally, for more than 30 years, as a powerful district attorney, the top law enforcement official for two north shore parishes, including one that he proudly called “St. Slammany” for its tough-on-crime stance.
But when he enters U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon’s courtroom Monday morning, Reed, 69, will find himself at the defense table, just another defendant fighting to preserve his reputation and his freedom.
Reed’s corruption trial comes nearly a year after he was indicted in a case that grew out of media reports questioning some of his side business dealings and his use of campaign money, a gathering drumbeat that prompted him to bow out of a race for a seventh term as district attorney for the 22nd Judicial District, encompassing St. Tammany and Washington parishes.
The trial will be closely watched both because of the long shadow cast by Reed for many years and because public corruption trials are so rare. They’re even more unusual in St. Tammany Parish, where former Coroner Peter Galvan was the last official to face federal corruption charges. But Galvan, who was accused of stealing public money, pleaded guilty in 2013, as do most people charged with federal crimes, according to legal experts.
“Ask John Doe on the street if he has enough stamina to withstand a federal trial, he’d say, ‘No,’ ” said Matt Coman, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s an arduous process for all involved. But the defendant is the only one who risks losing his freedom.”
But both Coman and Harry Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney in New Orleans, said it’s more common to see someone fight charges in a public corruption case than in a garden-variety federal case. Defendants in such cases might feel they have more at stake in terms of reputation, as they often are well-known members of the community, Rosenberg said.
Often, they also possess skills that might aid in their defense. Public officials are usually accustomed to pressure and media scrutiny, Coman noted, though those skills did not keep former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, former Gov. Edwin Edwards or many others out of prison.
The prospect of a trial means the public will get a much more in-depth look at the case the government has built against Reed than is typically provided in a plea deal, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, which was critical of many of Reed’s practices as district attorney.
The case also bears watching because it’s the highest-profile corruption prosecution that has been carried out entirely on U.S. Attorney Ken Polite’s watch, Goyeneche said.
Legal observers say a two-week trial is typical for white-collar criminal cases of this magnitude.
The 19-count indictment paints Reed as a money-hungry official who funneled checks from a public hospital that were meant for the District Attorney’s Office into a private account and who treated his campaign war chest — money contributed for his political campaigns — like a personal slush fund.
He is charged with conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering and making false statements on tax returns.
The government’s case against Reed has two distinct and unrelated prongs, with the only common thread being his alleged greed.
The first prong deals with his $30,000 annual contract to provide legal advice to St. Tammany Parish Hospital. Prosecutors say he got that work in his capacity as district attorney and the money should have gone to the District Attorney’s Office, but Reed contends that the arrangement was with him as a private lawyer.
But the bulk of the charges against him deal with how he spent campaign donations, with the government alleging he used campaign cash for lavish personal dinners, to drum up personal-injury work as a private lawyer and to pay off expenses for his son, Steven, a co-defendant who is named in four of the charges. Part of the money allegedly was used to pay off a loan for Steven Reed that the elder Reed co-signed.
Walter Reed’s lawyer, Rick Simmons, has mounted a vigorous defense, filing a raft of pre-trial motions attacking the underpinnings of the government’s case. Simmons has sought to remove potentially inflammatory language from the indictment, and he tried three times — all without success — to persuade the judge to separate the campaign spending charges from those related to Reed’s work for the hospital.
Rosenberg said the defense would indeed have an easier time if the government were not able to “stack” the charges, which he said makes a defendant look more suspect to jurors.
Simmons also sought unsuccessfully to get the campaign fund-related charges dismissed altogether, arguing they are a federal overreach that seeks to create a federal crime out of alleged violations of state campaign finance laws. The jury will hear the same arguments at the trial, as they make up the heart of Reed’s defense.
Evidence in the trial is likely to be a mix of documentary evidence, such as proof of payments and bank records, and witnesses’ testimony, Coman said.
Rosenberg said he would expect a representative of the hospital to testify, as well as FBI and IRS agents.
Jerry Wayne Cox, the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Franklinton that received a $25,000 payment from Reed’s campaign fund, is another likely witness, Rosenberg said. Prosecutors charge that Reed gave the money in exchange for Cox referring personal injury cases to him, and the payment to Faith Tabernacle was included as a wire-fraud count in a superseding indictment filed in the fall.
Cox, who pleaded guilty to an unrelated charge of structuring financial payments to avoid paying taxes, has not yet been sentenced. But his guilty plea could have an impact on his credibility, Rosenberg said.
If the government has been able to locate any clients that Cox brought to Reed, they could be called as well, he said.
It’s also possible that the government will call Reed’s former girlfriend. The possible testimony of Claire Bradley has been the subject of some pre-trial wrangling over expert witnesses, with Reed’s attorneys saying that if Bradley takes the stand, they want to call a computer expert to testify about unflattering on-line postings regarding Reed that she purportedly made under an alias.
Whether Reed himself will testify is another question. The former district attorney doesn’t have a criminal record, making him a better witness, Coman said, but once a criminal defendant testifies, “it becomes about their performance.”
Putting the defendant on the stand “makes their credibility the forefront of the case,” Rosenberg agreed. It also allows the government to raise issues that might not otherwise have been allowed in evidence.
While jurors are instructed not to hold a defendant’s refusal to testify against him, many lawyers believe jurors typically do question the decision, figuring that an innocent defendant would take the stand.
In federal criminal cases, prosecutors tend to have the upper hand over their targets, who must come up with the time, energy and money to mount a defense while the government may have worked on the case for a year or more with almost unlimited time and resources, Rosenberg said.
But there are weaknesses in the prosecution’s case against Reed, Rosenberg noted.
When it comes to the tax charges, for example, the defense can show that Reed paid a substantial amount of taxes — “more than most jurors ever paid,” he said.
As for Reed’s use of campaign funds, Rosenberg pointed out that the district attorney ran for office six times without a question being raised about how he spent the money.
“It’s hard to know how that will play out,” he said.
Reed also has a lawyer who has gotten at least one client acquitted on federal criminal charges: Simmons represented David Warren, the former New Orleans police officer who shot Henry Glover in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. On a retrial, Warren was acquitted by a federal jury on civil rights and gun charges in 2013.
“Rick is hoping for a repeat performance,” Rosenberg said.
As for Simmons, he was less talkative about the case.
“Walter is looking forward to his day in court,” he said. “Let’s leave it at that.”
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.