Big-time prosecutor turned federal defendant Walter Reed spent nearly six hours on the witness stand Friday, explaining to the jury how a vast array of personal items and events he’d charged to his campaign fund, in some cases to funnel money to his co-defendant grown son through inflated bills, were all proper under a broad state ethics law that allows political donations to pay for costs associated with holding public office.
Monday, jurors took just four hours to call him on it.
Jurors convicted Reed, who served as district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington parishes for three decades, on 18 of 19 counts, many involving that campaign slush fund plus some centered on money he pocketed to represent St. Tammany Parish Hospital that should have gone to his office. Reed’s son Steven is heading to prison too, after being convicted on three of four charges he faced.
That it seemed such an easy call reflects just how arrogant Reed appeared, how much his lofty position had gone to his head. This is a man who set his own salary, and who had a side law practice -- nothing illegal there, except, it turns out, for the part where he used his campaign fund to recruit clients.
Yet he still lived his life on the make, seeking out every opportunity to stick the donors who felt obligated to support him with his bills. There were flowers for a woman who accompanied him to the Angola Prison Rodeo, which included a playful note to “my rodeo girl from a secret admirer from Camp J.” There were lavish Thanksgiving restaurant dinners, which his lawyer linked to his job because apparently inviting employees with no place else to go was something other than a simple act of kindness. There was a housewarming party that, like many other occasions, Reed billed as a campaign-related event, on the theory that friends and family make up any politician’s base.
With Reed as a client, his lawyer Rick Simmons was always the underdog. Still, he did consistently make one point that’s worth remembering. While the feds were able to make a federal case, it’s the state that regulates the use of political donations, and the rules are so loose that finding a line to cross amounts to a genuine accomplishment. In fact, it’s still hard to identify the line in the first place, given what so many politicians have been getting away with for so many years.
In this case, give the jurors credit for knowing it when they saw it.
‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.