Harry Morel

Harry Morel, a former district attorney for St. Charles Parish, La., arrives with his attorney Ralph Capitelli, right, at Federal Court in New Orleans, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The suspension of an FBI agent who investigated former St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel has drawn the attention of the Senate Judiciary Committee, an influential panel of lawmakers that has opened an inquiry into the case. 

The committee's chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a list of questions to FBI Director James Comey, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other officials regarding the bureau's treatment of agent Michael Zummer, who was stripped of his security clearance after sending a lengthy letter to the federal judge presiding over Morel's criminal proceedings.

The FBI suspended Zummer without pay during the summer and escorted him out of the bureau's New Orleans field office pending the results of an internal inquiry to determine whether he mishandled "sensitive material."  

The suspension, Grassley wrote, "looks like it could be a misuse of the security clearance process to mask retaliation for protected whistleblowing."  

The agent had been pushing for prosecutors to pursue more serious charges against Morel, according to FBI records.

Morel was sentenced this year to three years in prison after pleading guilty to one count of obstruction of justice, a charge that stemmed from his efforts to derail a multi-year FBI probe into his sexual misconduct.

Though he was never charged with a sexual crime, Morel acknowledged, in pleading guilty, that he used his office to prey upon women who sought leniency in their criminal cases. He demanded sexual favors in exchange for his assistance. 

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt has declined to make public Zummer's 31-page letter, but he said he shares the agent's "legitimate concerns" about whether the U.S. Justice Department "is either unable or unwilling to self-police lapses of ethics, professionalism and truthfulness in its ranks."

Zummer's letter included the names of more than two dozen people involved in the Morel case and apparently outlined allegations of misconduct involving government officials.  

After his suspension, Zummer took his concerns to Congress, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Morel case was tainted by a conflict of interest in the U.S. Attorney's Office. He alleged that Morel received favorable treatment from the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans because his defense attorney, Ralph Capitelli, is a close friend of a senior prosecutor in the office, Fred Harper.

Capitelli and Harper previously owned a condominium on the Gulf Coast together, an arrangement Zummer has pointed to in questioning the impartiality of the U.S. Attorney's Office.

That Capitelli and Harper owned a condo together was hardly a secret. It was the focus of an item in a 2008 political column in The Times-Picayune, and records of the purchase were available publicly. Ethics expert Dane Ciolino said at the time that the arrangement did not raise red flags.  

Grassley sent letters to Comey and Lynch last month demanding to know whether the Justice Department has investigated Harper's relationship to Capitelli. The senator also asked for the FBI to provide "all documentation and communications related to" the bureau's suspension of Zummer. 

Zummer told the Judiciary Committee that after raising his concerns with the Justice Department's inspector general, he faced retaliation including from assistant U.S. attorneys in New Orleans who refused to prosecute his cases. 

According to Grassley, Zummer asked the FBI's "prepublication review program" to vet his letter to Engelhardt "for disclosure to the court under the First Amendment," but the bureau declined to review the document. Zummer sent the letter to the judge on Aug. 15 and was later suspended.

"Whistleblowers are some of the most patriotic people I know — men and women who labor, often anonymously, to let Congress and the American people know when the government is not working so we can fix it," Grassley wrote in his letter to Comey. "As such, it would be prudent for you to remind FBI management about the value of protected disclosures to Congress and/or inspectors general in accordance with whistleblower protection laws." 

Capitelli said Harper was not involved in the Morel case and that Zummer's concerns already have been addressed by the Justice Department's inspector general. He accused Zummer of misleading the Senate Judiciary Committee and being overzealous in his investigation of Morel.  

"Mike Zummer is, in fact, a disgraced rogue FBI agent who is trying desperately to salvage his career, which is in shambles," Capitelli said. "FBI officials escorted Zummer from the FBI offices and took his security clearance from him. Based on his transgressions, improper investigative tactics and ethical improprieties, Mike Zummer should have been led out in handcuffs." 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.