Just days after a partner in the McCranie Sistrunk law firm said St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed has no formal affiliation with the practice, another partner said Monday that Reed in fact is “of counsel” with the firm, as the district attorney himself has maintained.
Mike Sistrunk confirmed Reed’s relationship with McCranie Sistrunk and noted that The Times-Picayune had published a short item in 2005 announcing Reed’s new affiliation. That relationship remains intact, Sistrunk said.
It was not immediately clear why Burgess McCranie, another partner in the firm, said otherwise in an email last week to a public agency.
“Of counsel” is a designation that generally means a lawyer practices in association with a firm but is not a full member or partner in the firm.
In response to a question about whether Reed was of counsel to the firm, McCranie responded in the negative. “No formal designation,” he wrote. “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 Metropolitan Crime Commission, a private watchdog group.
Regardless of the specific nature of Reed’s relationship with McCranie Sistrunk, it may have little or no bearing on the ethical implications of Reed’s 2011 decision to recuse the District Attorney’s Office from a criminal case in which a trucker was charged with two counts of negligent homicide after causing a wreck that left two women dead. Reed declined to handle the case, vaguely citing the need “to avoid a conflict of interest through the appearance of any impropriety.”
As a result, the criminal case against the trucker at fault in the wreck, Anthony Hernandez, was handled by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Reed has said he was forced to seek the recusal because of his “of counsel” relationship with McCranie Sistrunk, which had signed on to represent the family of the victims.
Neither Reed nor members of the firm have been willing to discuss Reed’s role in the case with The New Orleans Advocate or to say how large a fee he received. But Reed bragged in a 2012 magazine article that he had settled the case for $2.4 million, adding: “I felt very good to be able to secure the financial future of the two children and the husband.”
Critics have said the episode raises serious questions about Reed’s commitment to his job overseeing one of the largest and busiest district attorney’s offices in the state — a job that pays him roughly $200,000 annually.
News of his recusal in the case came amid a raft of other reports that have raised questions about whether Reed has used his public job to enrich himself in various ways, including possibly improper spending of campaign donations and questionable side contracts for legal work with public entities.
Several legal experts said that if Reed is in fact “of counsel” to the McCranie Sistrunk firm, he had no choice but to recuse his office from the criminal case against Hernandez because the firm was suing Hernandez.
The real problem, they said, is that Reed shouldn’t be of counsel to a private firm.
If Reed is a full-time district attorney, as he says on his disclosure forms, “he should NOT be of counsel to any firm,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in legal ethics.
Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School in New York who has written about prosecutorial misconduct, called Reed’s arrangement “extremely unethical” and “dangerous.”
“This is a picture that is completely alien to the proper ethical standard for prosecutors; this DA can be a prosecutor or a private lawyer, but with the ‘of counsel’ designation, he appears to be wearing both hats at the same time,” Gershman said. “He can’t do this ethically.”
Gershman added that, while he believes Reed had to recuse himself from the Hernandez case because of his affiliation with the firm suing Hernandez, he believes the district attorney also should have recused himself from the civil case to quell any suspicions about his motivations.
“He should be disqualified from both cases — criminal and civil,” Gershman said. “To allow the DA to select which case is his priority, and which case to stay involved in, to me really makes a mockery of the justice system, and the DA looks like a greedy self-interested official.”
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, wondered why the law firm’s partners can’t seem to agree on the nature of their relationship with the district attorney.
“How would one of the senior partners in that firm not know he was of counsel?” Goyeneche asked.
He noted that Reed told The Times-Picayune in 2005 that he was taking a “ceremonial-type position” at the firm and that he saw no conflict of interest in aligning with the firm in part because it handles no criminal cases. He emphasized then that he would remain “the full-time district attorney.”
If Reed’s role was really just ceremonial, Goyeneche wondered whether Reed had to recuse his office simply because of his relationship with the private firm representing the victims.
“Why does the district attorney need a ceremonial appointment to a private law firm?” Goyeneche asked. “And if his of-counsel status somehow adversely affected his ability to be district attorney, you have to ask: How many other clients of the (McCranie Sistrunk) firm are in St. Tammany Parish? How many have had any criminal matters, including traffic tickets?
“Why would the full-time district attorney of any jurisdiction put himself in the position where there could be the appearance of a conflict of interest?
“Why does he need to be of counsel with any law firm?”
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.