FBI New Orleans

The Advocate file photo

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

A local FBI agent who investigated former St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel told a judge last year that he has been hamstrung by "systemic corruption" within the U.S. Department of Justice, saying he's come under pressure at times to cover up the misconduct of federal prosecutors.

The agent, Michael Zummer, outlined those grievances and others in a 31-page letter he wrote last year to U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt before the judge sentenced Morel for attempting to derail a years-long FBI probe into the former district attorney's sexual misconduct.

Morel pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was sentenced to three years behind bars, the maximum penalty for that crime. But federal authorities accused him — without filing charges to match — of far more grievous crimes dating back decades, referring to Morel as a "sexual predator" and saying he had committed sexual assault.

Zummer, a former Marine and a Stanford-educated attorney, has long ruffled feathers at the bureau, and he recently persuaded the influential Senate Judiciary Committee to open an inquiry into the Morel case.

He was suspended without pay last year and escorted from the FBI's New Orleans field office pending the results of an internal inquiry to determine whether he mishandled "sensitive material."    

Engelhardt refused to make Zummer's letter public last year, even as he said he shared the agent's "legitimate concerns" about whether the Justice Department "is either unable or unwilling to self-police lapses of ethics, professionalism and truthfulness in its ranks."

Engelhardt frequently railed against government misconduct in the infamous Danziger Bridge shooting case and, citing the online postings of federal prosecutors, ordered a new trial for the New Orleans police officers convicted. 

The FBI later reviewed the missive at Zummer's request and approved about 14 pages of it for release, clearing the way for the agent to release the document Tuesday evening. But the bureau, citing "security considerations," blacked out the remainder of the document, obscuring entire pages in which Zummer apparently sought to explain why he believes Morel's plea agreement was improper and tainted by prosecutorial misconduct within the local U.S. Attorney's Office.

Zummer has complained that Morel received favorable treatment because his defense attorney, Ralph Capitelli, is a close friend of a senior prosecutor in the office, Fred Harper. Former U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite Jr., however, has said Harper played no role in the case, calling Zummer's allegations "completely false."

Polite said a Justice Department investigation had already cleared Harper of any conflicts before Zummer made his latest complaint. And Capitelli — who frequently represents defendants in federal court — said Harper has recused himself from cases involving Capitelli’s clients for the past decade.

"The American people should know when prosecutors and investigators disagree so they can make their own decision about the effectiveness of both," Zummer wrote in his letter. 

Though heavily redacted, the letter offers an extraordinary window into the tension that develops at times between prosecutors and case agents like Zummer, who investigated Morel for years and doggedly pushed the case even after Polite's predecessors refused to bring charges.

Zummer wrote that FBI agents are fed up with a lack of follow-through by some prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“Many of the best agents are disillusioned, angry and demoralized because of how prosecutors mishandle cases," the letter says.

But Tania Tetlow, a Tulane law school professor and former assistant U.S. attorney, said it appears Zummer just doesn't like the way the system is set up, with checks and balances that give prosecutors the last word on whether and how to pursue cases.

“This kind of tension always exists, and it’s just the nature of the beast,” said Tetlow, who was a prosecutor more than a decade ago and who remembers Zummer as a smart and aggressive agent. “People get frustrated day to day, but they still work together constantly.”

Zummer explained to Engelhardt that he wrote the letter as a private citizen, seeking to avail himself of his First Amendment rights. Indeed, portions of the document suggest the agent took the outcome of the Morel case personally, prompting him to jeopardize his career by speaking out.    

"He's trying to portray himself as a private citizen in the letter, but he's anything but that — he's the case agent," Capitelli said. "He's a disgruntled, rogue agent who's behaving like a spoiled kid who doesn't get his way." 

The FBI has refused to comment on the letter or Zummer's status with the bureau. 

The letter, in its redacted form, is short on specifics but contains sweeping allegations against the Justice Department and more than two dozen people involved in the Morel case, including other criminal defendants, current and former federal prosecutors, FBI agents, private attorneys and even some state officials

"This letter will anger many powerful people, prosecutors, former prosecutors, defense attorneys, politicians and FBI management," Zummer wrote. "If I am wrong, then urge the Justice Department to prove it. Open up the files and let the American people see for themselves."

"I love fighting corruption in Louisiana," he added. "This is where I belong, but this letter most likely means my time is over here and possibly in the FBI."  

Zummer portrayed the letter as a last resort, saying the FBI had gone to extraordinary lengths to silence him.   

"Although this is not the normal procedure to handle this sort of legal issue, the FBI's conduct has left me no choice," the agent wrote. "The victims, witnesses and investigative team should know, and they deserve to have the public know, why this plea agreement (with Morel) was made."

Zummer for years has taken issue with the friendship between Capitelli and Harper, who previously owned a condominium on the Gulf Coast together. He has claimed that arrangement has compromised the impartiality of the U.S. Attorney's Office, an allegation Polite and Capitelli vehemently deny. 

In a recent interview, Polite called the Morel case "one of the proudest prosecutions of my tenure." His office secured the guilty plea even though a key witness had died.  

"I made the decision, kind of risking my own political capital within the office, to reopen a case that a past administration had passed on," he said. "Several other (assistants) in my office had said, 'Look, this is important stuff, but we don’t think there's a case here. We can't make a case here.' "

Zummer complained that the federal criminal justice system is inherently flawed, declaring that "the supposed independence of the federal grand jury is a myth." Federal law, he added, allows prosecutors "to obscure their inaction on prosecutable cases." 

As it's written, Zummer asserted, federal law "has the perverse effect of allowing one or a handful of federal prosecutors to bury evidence of criminal behavior without even giving the grand jury the opportunity to determine a target's guilt or innocence."

"Prosecutors decide what the grand jury hears and whom it considers as a target," Zummer added. "If prosecutors do not put a case before the grand jury, the material collected in its name remains secret unless those same prosecutors seek authorization for its release."

Zummer recommended changing the law to require investigating agencies like the FBI, when it deems a case "prosecutable," to "provide a report to the public outlining the evidence against the subject." Such a practice would overturn longstanding policies that discourage naming people or officials who are the subject of investigations but who are not charged.

"In public corruption investigations, this recommendation would also shed light on the behavior of public officials believed by investigators to have committed a crime," he wrote. "Let the people see what their public 'servants' are doing."  

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.