Walter Reed spent nearly six hours on the witness stand in his federal corruption trial Friday, making frequent eye contact with the jury of six men and six women as he explained a political philosophy based on an adage he said he learned from former Congressman Bob Livingston while working on his campaign: Make two new friends every day.
Reed, who was district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington parishes for 30 years, testified that the strategy that got him elected to six terms relied on family and friends, calling them a critical base.
Reed’s use of campaign money is a major prong in the 19-count federal indictment against him, along with charges of conspiring to funnel money to his son and co-defendant, Steven Reed, and making false statements on tax returns. The government also alleges that Walter Reed pocketed $30,000 a year from a public hospital that was intended for the District Attorney’s Office.
A relaxed Reed took the stand Friday morning as defense attorney Richard Simmons took aim, point by point, at the case the government had laid out over six days of testimony from former staffers, restaurateurs, accountants and St. Tammany Parish Hospital officials.
Reed offered explanations for his campaign spending, the money paid by the hospital for him to provide it with legal counsel and money spent in connection with his private law practice.
Family members helped get him elected, he said, crediting coffees held by his sister and the civic connections of his aunts, all of whom he remembered with flowers on special occasions. He called the flowers a wonderful way to express appreciation.
Having family members onstage at campaign events gives the public “a warm, fuzzy feeling,” he told the jury, as the defense played videos of his daughter Lindsay Reed, whom he called “my baby girl,” belting out pop tunes at a fundraiser and getting a huge bouquet from her beaming father.
Walter Reed said Pentecostal preacher Jerry Wayne Cox delivered a key constituency in Washington Parish. Church members vote, he said, and they follow their pastor’s advice on whom to support.
Politics also took him to a Pentecostal camp meeting at Joel Holmes’ church in Little Rock, Arkansas, he said. He was contemplating a run for attorney general — a statewide office for which he would need support from all over Louisiana, and lots of Louisiana preachers were at the meeting, he said.
He picked up big dinner tabs for camp meetings at both churches, Reed said. But he acknowledged that it was an error to charge a big dinner for Pentecostal preachers to the campaign and also submit it for reimbursement to McCranie Sistrunk, the law firm with which he was affiliated, telling the firm it was an expense related to getting personal-injury cases from Pentecostals.
Simmons also asked Reed about the $40,000 in taxes the government says he owes for $155,000 in unreported income.
Simmons asked Reed if he had paid $500,000 in federal income tax for the years targeted in the indictment.
“I thought that was enough,” Reed joked.
But when Simmons asked if he would have paid additional money if he had realized he owed it, he said he was not given that opportunity.
“If I owe taxes, I’d have paid it. But I just got indicted,” Reed said.
Reed justified campaign money that he paid his son — the heart of the conspiracy charge against the pair — saying he used the younger Reed’s companies when possible with the aim of being generous but within the law.
An anti-drug video that he paid Steven Reed $14,300 in campaign funds to produce had low production values because it was aimed at rural voters in Washington Parish who wouldn’t have appreciated a slick presentation, he said.
A housewarming party in April 2012 was a way to thank key supporters, he said, and Steven Reed’s company, Globop, produced it, handling entertainment, rentals, liquor and bartending.
As for the $29,400 he paid another of his son’s companies, Liquid Bread, for a 2012 fundraiser at the Castine Center, Walter Reed said his son provided half the liquor for the event. But he said his son got worried when a reporter asked him if he had a catering license, saying he needed one to provide alcohol.
“So Steven said he didn’t provide alcohol because he didn’t have a license — trying to protect himself and protect me. It caused havoc,” Reed said.
Reed’s confident manner gave way to a more weary demeanor during the afternoon’s relentless cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jordan Ginsberg.
Ginsberg hammered away at Reed’s work for St. Tammany Parish Hospital, asking him about a flurry of activity by his then-wife Shawn Reed and close friend Harry Pastuszek to draft a resolution in 1996 for the hospital’s board explicitly naming Walter Reed, as a private lawyer, as the board’s legal counsel — and about their claims it was to confirm an arrangement dating from mid-1994.
The government claims hospital officials thought that money was going to the District Attorney’s Office, while Reed has maintained that his arrangement was as a private lawyer.
Ginsberg repeatedly asked Reed if he was aware the resolution had never been discussed, much less adopted, by the board.
Reed, who frequently pleaded poor memory under cross-examination, said he couldn’t remember what happened 20 years ago.
“You expect the jury to believe that the resolution was so important that you had your wife and friend work on it for days, and you don’t know what happened?” Ginsberg asked.
“I know you don’t like my answer, but I just don’t remember,” Reed said.
Some of Ginsberg’s sharpest questioning came when he asked Reed about the testimony of Leo Hemelt, an assistant district attorney who sometimes filled in for Reed at hospital meetings.
Hemelt testified that Reed asked him to sign a false affidavit saying Reed had offered to pay him to attend the meetings and he had declined.
“Why did you pressure Leo Hemelt to sign a false affidavit?” Ginsberg asked.
“That’s not what happened,” Reed said. “He is mistaken. He is a Chicken Little, and most days the sky is falling. ... I’ve never done anything like that in my life.”
Ginsberg also asked about Reed’s habit of sending flowers to women and billing the campaign, asking why they were categorized on his campaign finance reports as “promotional” expenditures. Reed said his accountant, Ronald Garrity, had come up with the term.
“Ladies like flowers, Mr. Ginsberg,” Reed said. “Ladies like flowers, and ladies win elections.”
Reed characterized a number of the actions spelled out in the government’s case as mistakes on his part, including using campaign funds to pay for flowers for a West Monroe woman he was dating.
He said he later reimbursed his campaign for a number of the items that came to light, including the money for the Pentecostal dinner that McCranie Sistrunk also had reimbursed. He said he also paid the campaign back for $5,000 paid to Liquid Bread by caterer Caymen Sinclair and another $5,000 paid to Steven Reed from White Oak Productions, another company involved in a fundraiser.
Defense attorney Simmons asked his client if those reimbursements took place before Walter Reed was indicted, and he said they were.
But Ginsberg asked if they were made after Reed received a grand jury subpoena. “After you were caught, you paid it back,” he said.
Ginsberg also asked if Reed had paid back the $30,000 a year he got from the hospital after Reed testified that he now realizes the hospital had a different understanding of their arrangement. Reed said he doesn’t believe he needs to return that money.
Ginsberg battered away at Reed’s admission of mistakes, such as depositing a supporter’s campaign donation in his personal account — something he blamed on his secretary. Reed said his accountant also “made his share of mistakes.”
“Everything we found is just a mistake?” Ginsberg asked.
Reed gave a long sigh. “When you investigate for three years, you will find my mistakes,” he said.
Court reconvenes Monday morning for closing arguments.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.