When an 18-wheeler abruptly moved into the right-hand lane of westbound Interstate 12, killing two women in a Ford Explorer, St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed would have been the logical person to prosecute the driver, who was booked into St. Tammany Parish jail the day of the accident — June 24, 2011 — on two counts of negligent homicide.
But Reed, who has served as district attorney for nearly 30 years, apparently saw a business opportunity instead. He recused his office from the criminal case involving Texas trucker Anthony Hernandez so he could earn a fee in the civil lawsuit that stemmed from the deaths of Desiree Hudson, 35, of Robert, and her mother, Colleen Randall, 54, of Covington.
Though the federal court settlement of that case doesn’t disclose the amount, Reed bragged to a Pentecostal church publication that he helped win a $2.4 million judgment for the victims’ family, which included Hudson’s three minor children.
The story in the magazine’s fall 2012 issue recounts details of the accident and says the victims’ pastor, Brother Brent Holland at First Pentecostal Church of Hammond, got them in touch with Reed.
“I felt very good to be able to secure the financial future of the two children and the husband,” Reed is quoted as saying.
Reed also proudly touted his involvement in the case in a letter that he sent out to a raft of Pentecostal pastors in August 2012, advertising his services as a personal-injury attorney and shilling for more business.
In a statement faxed to The New Orleans Advocate late Friday, Reed didn’t address his role in the case or say how much he was paid. He said he had to recuse his office because he is “of counsel” to the McCranie Sistrunk law firm, which handled the civil case. “The firm represented the victims of this tragedy and I recused myself and my office from handling this matter to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” he said.
However, Burgess McCranie, of the firm, said in an email this week that Reed has never been “of counsel” with the firm. Reed has “no formal designation,” McCranie’s email says, although “from time to time he will refer a plaintiff case to the firm and will participate in handling the case.”
The email was provided to The New Orleans Advocate by the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission after the newspaper contacted the commission about Reed’s recusal in the Hernandez case.
Louisiana’s Rules of Professional Conduct say lawyers who do not work for the same law firm may not share fees from a case unless three conditions are met: the client agrees in writing, the fees are reasonable and each lawyer “renders meaningful legal services” in the matter.
Reed, who is the highest-paid district attorney in Louisiana, earning more than $200,000 from his public sector work, also maintains a private practice that brings in a six-figure annual income, according to his most recent disclosure forms to the state Ethics Board. Those forms describe the work as legal and consulting fees.
Officials are not required to specify their exact income from such work but simply to put it in one of four categories. Reed checked the fourth box, indicating his private legal work brings in more than $100,000.
Exactly what Reed did on behalf of the Hudsons isn’t clear. Michael Sistrunk, of McCranie Sistrunk, is listed as the plaintiffs’ attorney in the suit, which was filed in federal court on April 4, 2012. Sistrunk did not return calls asking what work Reed did in the case or how much he was paid.
Reed’s recusal has some parallels to a case that led to misconduct charges being filed in 2011 by the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel against 16th Judicial District Attorney Phil Haney.
Haney chose to represent a woman injured in a boating accident rather than prosecute the boat’s driver, meaning his office had to be recused from that case. Haney was paid $20,000 for his representation of the woman in the case, which was settled in 2007.
Charles Plattsmier, chief disciplinary counsel for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, said at that time that it was wrong for Haney to choose private, for-profit work over his official duties as DA.
“It’s not appropriate for a district attorney, in our opinion, to forego or neglect his responsibilities as an elected official in order to pursue a civil case in his private practice,” Plattsmier said then.
At the time, Plattsmier said he believed Haney was the first sitting district attorney to be the subject of formal charges from his office.
Plattsmier said he could not comment on Reed’s decision to get involved in the Hudson family’s civil suit, which happened around the time Plattsmier was filing charges against Haney.
In that case, Haney claimed he did not know the boat’s driver had been cited in the accident at the time he agreed to represent the injured woman; once he found out, his only option was to recuse himself, he said. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel disagreed, saying Haney should have recused himself from both cases at that point.
The Louisiana Supreme Court eventually cleared Haney in the matter, in part because records showed the boat’s driver was not cited until months after the accident.
That’s an important distinction between the two cases, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the crime commission.
“Walter Reed knew from the minute his phone rang and he found out there was a fatality in St. Tammany Parish that he would be responsible for prosecuting this case,” Goyeneche said.
In the St. Tammany case, Hernandez was booked into the St. Tammany Parish Jail on June 24, 2011, the day of the accident, on two felony counts of negligent homicide and careless operation. His bail was set at $100,000.
Four months later, Reed moved to recuse his office, offering a vague explanation: “That for the orderly and fair administration of justice and to avoid a conflict of interest through the appearance of any impropriety, Walter P. Reed as District Attorney moves for the voluntary recusation of the District Attorney and his staff,” the document says.
The defendant pleaded no contest Jan. 10, 2012, to reduced charges of careless operation of a vehicle and improper lane usage — both misdemeanors. He was sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence, six months probation and a $125 fine. The prosecution was handled by the state Attorney General’s Office.
“We cannot speak to why the case was recused to our office, though that information may be available from the District Attorney’s Office,” said Steven Hartmann, spokesman for the state attorney general. “The charges were reduced because there was insufficient evidence to prove negligent homicide. There was no evidence of criminal negligence.’’
Goyeneche blasted Reed’s handling of the matter, saying it appears to be part of a larger pattern of Reed using his office to seek financial gain.
“I think it’s a shocking dereliction of duty,” Goyeneche said. “I think it’s a slap in the face of every citizen of St. Tammany Parish, and prosecutors in this state should be and will be embarrassed that a sitting DA would place his personal enrichment above the responsibilities and duties of his office. Those are hardly the actions of a full-time DA.”
Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace University and an expert on prosecutorial misconduct, said Reed’s behavior is well outside the lines. The fact that he recused the office doesn’t cure what he described as a clear conflict.
“He was elected as district attorney, and I would say his exclusive responsibility is to be the DA as elected by his constituents, not to drop or avoid cases that he is required to prosecute because he is making money from those cases. That seems to me to be a blatant conflict of interest,” Gershman said.
Reed’s private law work has been the subject of other media reports this week that questioned the $30,000 a year he is paid to represent St. Tammany Parish Hospital. Reed told WVUE-TV and nola.com that he works for the hospital through his private practice, but hospital administrator Patti Ellish characterized the arrangement as being with the District Attorney’s Office.
Reed’s disclosure forms list the income from the hospital separately and not under the category of his private practice.
The article in the Pentecostal magazine Together suggests that Reed has aggressively marketed his services as a personal-injury attorney through contacts with that denomination’s churches.
“It seems that Mr. Reed has been quietly representing Apostolic Pentecostals all over the country in cases involving personal injuries,” the article says. “Preachers have referred to him cases, and he has been very successful in returning very just money judgments to those injured in car wrecks, on the job, offshore and other accidents.”
The story mentions another large settlement for which Reed takes credit: $2.5 million for the family of a man killed in a chemical plant in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
His letter to pastors, which refers to a camp meeting he attended with Pentecostals in Arkansas, is a blunt pitch for more legal referrals.
“I have had the pleasure of getting to know many of the Apostolic preachers and have made many preacher friends over the years, with Brother Jerry Wayne Cox of Franklinton, Louisiana being one of my best friends in life,” Reed wrote.
Reed talks openly in the same article about how busy his private civil practice keeps him. “Reed joked that sometimes it seemed like Faith Tabernacle was a full time job. Brother Cox soon had him representing the church and injured people from the church,” the article says.
That says a lot about Reed’s priorities, Goyeneche said.
“It’s obvious from the article that his full-time job is doing plaintiff work, hustling jobs all over the country, ginning up business for his private law practice,” Goyeneche said, noting that the article even provides Reed’s private cellphone number and email address.
“How many people in St. Tammany Parish have Walter Reed’s cell phone number?” Goyeneche asked. “On his disclosure form, he says he’s a full-time district attorney. But you read this article and ... the obvious conclusion is that his full-time job is his private law practice and his part-time job is being district attorney.”
Gershman, the law professor, said Reed’s actions raise questions not only about where Reed’s priorities lie but also about whether he is using his office to drum up private business.
“Is he meeting with the victims and then directing them to this particular law firm?” Gershman asked. “He’s using his office to generate private litigation from which he and lawyers he knows get rewarded. And that’s something DAs can’t do.”
Reed may have helped build goodwill in the Pentecostal community by making contributions to denominational churches from his campaign fund. He gave $25,000 to Faith Tabernacle for its building fund in 2013 and made $1,000 contributions to First Apostolic Church in Lake Charles in both 2012 and 2013. His fund also contributed $2,000 for missions to Scott Hall, the magazine editor, in 2012.
Staff writer Faimon A. Roberts III contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on May 18 to add Rafael Goyeneche’s first name and title.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter at @spagonesadvocat.