Former longtime St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel was a “sexual predator” who victimized more than 20 women seeking leniency from his office over a two-decade period, federal authorities said in an extraordinary news conference Wednesday following Morel’s guilty plea to a charge of obstruction of justice.

“Justice finally came calling,” U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite Jr. said of the former district attorney, who stepped down in 2012. “By title, he was the embodiment of justice, the elected district attorney of St. Charles Parish for over 30 years. However, in the darkness of his heart, he was something else entirely, a man who perverted his position of power to take sexual advantage of desperate women who needed help — and he did this over and over again.”

The full extent of Morel’s misconduct may never be known, Polite said, due in part to the untimely death of a critical witness and several other evidentiary “hurdles” that initially dissuaded the U.S. Attorney’s Office from bringing charges.

It was only after investigators uncovered a pattern of abuse, involving several women, that they decided to charge the career prosecutor. Some of these victims “needed help enforcing child support obligations,” Polite said, while “others had children who were in trouble with the law” or were themselves facing charges. “Harry Morel could make things go away, but he wanted sexual acts in exchange.”

Polite insisted the single charge against Morel represented a just outcome for the former district attorney’s many victims, some of whom, “if exposed to the scrutiny of the media or the scrutiny of the courtroom, would prove to be very difficult witnesses and may ultimately lead to no justice for this defendant.”

The single charge, Polite added, reflects “the circumstances of the defendant, given his health, given his age, as well as some of the legal and evidentiary concerns.” Those challenges included “very significant hearsay concerns” and “questions about whether the quid pro quo was explicit enough.”

“The case had to be bolstered in many respects by gaining additional individuals” who came forward, Polite said.

Jeffrey Sallet, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Orleans field division, described Morel’s misconduct as “the worst form of public corruption — corruption so corrosive that it erodes, and can even destroy, the citizens’ faith in the proper and impartial administration of justice.”

“Harry Morel is nothing short of a sexual predator,” Sallet said. “His days of victimizing the most defenseless among us are over. He has been brought to justice and will now pay for his crimes.”

The strong words from federal authorities contrasted somewhat with the relatively tame nature of his plea deal. Under Morel’s plea deal, the maximum sentence he can face is three years in prison — a penalty Polite said Morel “will likely receive.”

Morel’s defense attorney, Ralph Capitelli, strongly objected to the government’s description of Morel.

“My client was not charged, nor did he plead guilty to, any sexual offense or crime,” Capitelli said. “This appears to be a smear tactic to influence the court at the time of sentencing with things the government clearly cannot prove. That is both unfair and, in my judgment, impermissible.”

Nearly all of a 15-page summary of the case, called a factual basis, is devoted to Morel’s improper dealings with Danelle Keim, a troubled young St. Rose woman who died of a drug overdose in 2013.

The document makes clear that Morel, who is 73 and married, had an inappropriate relationship that involved physical contact with Keim, who was in her mid-20s, and that he did some favors for her, such as getting her out of a community service requirement for a DWI conviction.

St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne told reporters Wednesday that Keim called 911 in 2010 and, “in a trembling voice,” reported that Morel had “sexually assaulted her” after the district attorney showed up at her apartment unexpectedly to discuss her DWI case.

She previously had asked Morel whether he could show her mercy — leading to the March 6 home visit.

The factual basis does not accuse Morel of sexual assault but does suggest he made some sort of unwanted advance — described in the summary simply as “inappropriate behavior.”

Months after the visit to Keim’s home, Morel agreed to dismiss the case against her.

Over the years, Champagne said, “dozens” of women offered similar accounts of being pressured to perform sex acts on Morel in exchange for leniency in criminal proceedings. “He knew they would be hesitant to come forward,” Champagne said. “He knew who to target and was skillful at it.”

Champagne said the investigation began in June 2009, when he received a call at his home “from the representative of a woman” who had asked Morel “for consideration” for her husband, who had been booked with DWI. She was told during a meeting with Morel “that the charges could be taken care of” if she agreed to meet (Morel) at his camp in Mississippi “to play” while her husband sat in jail, Champagne said. “She was offended and reported the encounter,” the sheriff added.

The factual basis suggests Morel’s misbehavior was much more wide-ranging, though it is short on specifics. In a single paragraph, it says that, between 2007 and 2009, Morel “solicited sex from other individuals who were defendants or who had family members who were defendants in the St. Charles Parish criminal justice system.

While soliciting sex from these individuals, Morel likewise used the office of the district attorney to provide benefits to these other individuals, including falsifying community service reports.”

None of those individuals are named.

Sallet, the FBI agent, praised Keim’s cooperation with the bureau, saying “her efforts and bravery will not be forgotten.”

In summer 2011, Keim and her then-boyfriend, Errol Falcon Jr., were both facing criminal charges, and Keim again turned to Morel for help. She met the district attorney at his office on July 4, a holiday, and Falcon took pictures that apparently documented the meeting.

Not long afterward, St. Charles authorities captured a jailhouse call between Falcon — who was by then locked up — and Keim in which they discussed the possibility of Keim doing sexual favors for Morel. Falcon soon afterward pleaded guilty to his role in a burglary ring and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Morel, meanwhile, agreed to help Keim any way he could with a DWI charge in Lafourche Parish. When she received a sentence that included a requirement she perform 64 hours of community service, Morel arranged for her to do the service at a Lions Club in St. Charles Parish. A friend of Morel’s at the club agreed to certify that Keim had performed the work, even though she hadn’t.

In July 2012, Morel again visited Keim at her apartment, and the FBI captured their conversation.

“We, we never really went, really, we never really went further than kissing and just kinda touching and feeling,” Keim says to him, according to the factual basis. “What do you want from me?”

The district attorney replies: “I don’t know. I want to spend some time with you.”

Keim responds: “You say that but you never — and I know you’re busy — but you never.”

Morel says: “Well, I think about making love to you, but then, you know it gets me nervous too. And I don’t … but that’s not why I’m helping you. So I just sort of back off.”

A few months after that conversation, in October 2012, Morel had papers sent to Lafourche authorities indicating Keim had completed her community service, even though she hadn’t.

The FBI intercepted the papers, according to court documents.

In November of that year came the incident that formed the crux of Morel’s guilty plea. Keim called the district attorney and said investigators wanted her to give them the memory card holding the photos showing the meeting between Morel and Keim in July 2011.

That call also was recorded, and in it, Morel told Keim she should discard or destroy the card.

If she wasn’t willing to, the district attorney said, he would do it himself. According to the factual basis, Morel knew the card “could be used as evidence in an official proceeding.”

Keim gave the card to Morel, but authorities could not find it when they searched Morel’s office in January 2013. Keim died the next month, at 27, and Morel in March produced the card.

“The wheels of justice might seem to turn slowly,” said Champagne, the St. Charles sheriff. “But with the right people in charge, they will turn.”

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt is scheduled to sentence Morel on Aug. 17.

Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.