On Wednesday afternoon, Ronnie Gracianette, a high-ranking aide to St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed, strode purposefully down a courthouse hallway and led a group of people up one floor and into a courtroom.
There, in a proceeding that took less than 10 minutes, Gracianette read aloud a seven-count indictment accusing Pearl River Mayor James Lavigne of corruption — specifically, using town funds to purchase personal items and awarding extra pay and vacation time to the town’s clerk, who also was indicted.
If the irony in the air was thick, Gracianette didn’t seem to notice.
But as everyone in the room surely was aware, Gracianette’s boss, Reed, is at the center of the most high-profile, high-stakes corruption probe known to be currently underway in the metropolitan area.
Federal investigators for months have been looking into the longtime DA’s activities, scrutinizing everything from his campaign spending to his lucrative deal with St. Tammany Parish Hospital and his gold-buying business.
Lavigne may spend time behind bars if he’s found guilty of the charges against him. If he’s there long enough, he could be joined by the man who put him there.
Montgomery: Tough on crime, gas, English
Warren Montgomery is one of the four candidates vying to replace Walter Reed, who, after 30 years on the job, isn’t seeking re-election this fall as St. Tammany Parish district attorney.
In a recent campaign mailer, Montgomery does his best to establish his tough-on-crime bona fides, promising, for instance, to push for the creation of an independent inspector general “that will be beholden to no-one, including him.”
But in addition to being tough on crime, Montgomery is tough on the English language.
Grammar and spelling gaffes abound in the mailer, which starts with a bang in the second sentence.
“We must be vigilante,” it says — a prescription that, if heeded, could keep a district attorney very busy.
The assault on the language doesn’t end there.
“But what truly sets Warren apart is a well rounded resumé of achievements that mesh well with a District Attorney that manages it’s (sic) business affairs, family and social matters, and hard-core criminal matters,” the mailer boasts.
Montgomery also promises to protect the citizens of the north shore from “the wrath of cold-hearted criminals,” and to use “innovative and creative technologies to utilize the most up-to-date criminal prosecution techniques,” techniques that apparently don’t include spell-checking software.
Then there’s Montgomery’s promise to crack down on drugs: “I will rid Washington and St. Tammany Parishes of the scourge that prey on our children with the POISON of Methane Drugs,” he pledges.
Methane, or natural gas, is not a major drug problem in the United States, unless you count America’s addiction to fossil fuels.
Methamphetamine, on the other hand, remains a daunting challenge for law enforcement.
Backstory behind sting operation revealed
Last month, WDSU-TV’s “I-Team” dropped a bombshell on one of the Criminal District Court races going on in New Orleans. It broadcast an audio clip that appeared to capture an incumbent judge promising to help one of his challengers get a job at the court if she would agree to drop out of the election.
Now The Lens, a local news website, has peeled back the curtain on exactly how WDSU’s Travers Mackel got hold of the recording, a mystery that has absorbed local political circles for weeks.
It turns out that Mackel and WDSU set up the sting themselves, wiring up Marie Williams for a lunch meeting with Judge Frank Marullo. The judge is heard on tape promising to help Williams get a job as a magistrate commissioner — a part-time gig that pays $75,000 a year — if she will drop out of the race.
On Friday, The Lens interviewed Williams, who said WDSU provided the equipment and helped set up the meeting.
Williams said she had been getting calls from one of Marullo’s campaign operatives about a potential deal and recorded one of their conversations. “I said, ‘I’m going to put a stop to this,’ ” she told The Lens. “So I went to Travers. I let him hear it. He said, ‘You know we have to do something about this. This is ridiculous.’ ”
Of course, sting operations are a time-honored — and sometimes controversial — tactic for investigative journalists.
In 1992, ABC News had its producers falsify résumés so they could get jobs at a Food Lion grocery store and reveal how the staff was bleaching spoiled meat and fish. In the 1970s, the Chicago Sun-Times actually purchased a bar and surreptitiously recorded shakedowns by city inspectors.
WDSU has been cagey about how it obtained the footage. But the station’s news director, Jonathan Shelley, told the Lens he had no reservations about the station’s tactics: “We’re comfortable that we’ve met the highest ethical and journalistic standards.”
WLAE-TV to televise judicial race forums
Local judicial races don’t often warrant televised forums, but WLAE-TV is doing something about that, airing face-offs in three New Orleans contests.
On Tuesday, the public station will air a forum featuring Taetrece Harrison and Bernadette D’Souza. D’Souza holds the family court seat on the Civil District Court bench that Harrison hopes to claim.
A week later, on Oct. 21, the station will air a forum with the three candidates in what has been the hottest judicial race on the ballot: the Section D seat in Criminal District Court. That contest pits incumbent Frank Marullo, the state’s longest-serving judge, against challengers Graham Bosworth and Marie Williams. Williams recently participated in a sting operation aimed at catching Marullo offering his help in getting her a job in exchange for her exit from the race.
On Oct. 28, WLAE will broadcast a forum with the two candidates for the open Section G seat at Criminal District Court: Byron Williams and Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens. The seat is vacant because Judge Julian Parker decided not to seek re-election.
The forums will be moderated by lawyer John Redmann. Each will be broadcast twice, at 1:30 p.m. and again at 9 p.m.
Compiled by staff writers Faimon A. Roberts III and Andrew Vanacore.