James Gill: Cambre case shows prosecution gone wild _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- St. Tammany District Attorney Walter Reed, right, and his publicist Morgan Stewart drive away from the St. Tammany Parish Courthouse in July, after Reed announced to his staff that he would not seek re-election.

After 30 years as St. Tammany and Washington parishes district attorney, Walter Reed declined to seek re-election last year.

The decision was not entirely spontaneous, for the feds had launched an investigation of his myriad alleged misdeeds. It could be a while before the old prosecutor finds out whether he will wind up on the other end of an indictment.

In such circumstances, the revelation that a couple of his aides filed bogus charges as a favor to an old pal must rank as a drop in the ocean.

But the case illustrates how the awesome powers of the prosecutor can breed an arrogant disregard for the rights of the citizenry. This was a clumsy stitch-up, with zero chance of a conviction, but not because Reed’s investigators were clueless. They were real pros, veterans of the New Orleans Police Department.

It can have been no innocent mistake that led to Rick Cambre’s arrest. The affidavit that secured the warrant was clearly deliberate fiction.

Cambre has settled his malicious prosecution claim for $40,000, which includes the $17,000 he spent on attorney’s fees before Reed’s office conceded it did not have a leg to stand on. Given that not even the purported victim claimed Cambre has committed any crime, he might easily have pressed for a bigger payout. So there is some consolation for taxpayers.

Cambre’s restaurant in Covington evidently wasn’t doing so well four years ago. His landlady, Barbara Marullo, had him evicted and filed suit for back rent. Then she noticed that a cooler was missing some parts and a kitchen drain had been sealed, and so informed her husband Anthony Marullo. He naturally leaped to her aid, and decided to report Cambre for theft and property damage.

Victims of alleged crimes are normally required to take their complaints to the Sheriff’s Office. You or I would get short shrift if we asked a DA’s Office to conduct the initial investigation of a relatively minor felony.

But Anthony Marullo, as a French Quarter bar owner of many years’ standing, is not without connections. One of them is Louis Dabdoub, a longtime leading light at NOPD who had become Reed’s chief investigator. After Anthony Marullo phoned in his tip to the DA’s Office, Dabdoub and his sidekick, another former NOPD sleuth named Sam Gebbia, swung into action.

They called in Barbara Marullo for an interview, and she gave them the full lowdown. Cambre was collared after Dabdoub assured a judge that he had admitted his guilt to her. That would have been news to Barbara Marullo; she said in the interview that she had not even spoken to Cambre.

You have, perhaps, been around long enough to know that cops can sometimes stray from the truth under oath. But you might still be shocked when they do so when the facts are bound to come out. Dabdoub and Gebbia had recorded their interview with Barbara Marullo, who said she had spoken only to Cambre’s attorney who told her “he denies all of it.” In a subsequent deposition she testified, “I did not say he took (the missing equipment). I did say that he was there and he was renting it or leasing it.”

Given that criminal charges could therefore never have held up, the only conceivable motive for such duplicity was to pressure Cambre into paying Barbara Marullo what she was demanding. Cambre, meanwhile, claimed that the missing equipment belonged to him and that the drain was blocked on a plumber’s recommendation.

When the lawsuit got to court, it was dismissed save for the claim over back rent. That is no doubt what would have happened even without the trumped-up charges. Once Reed decided not to run again, Dabdoub resigned. When Warren Montgomery took over as DA, he gave Gebbia the heave-ho.

Neither Dabdoub nor Gebbia seem to have faced any discipline for the Cambre caper when Reed was DA. A more fastidious DA probably would have fired Gebbia anyway for his role in railroading Reginald Adams on a 1979 murder charge in New Orleans. When the facts came to light and Adams was released from prison last year, Reed said he was “reviewing the matter” and the case was “troubling.” It obviously didn’t take him long to get over it.

Still, Reed could hardly be expected to hold assistants to account for an abuse of power. To judge from media accounts of his administration, he was too busy lining his own pockets to fret about that.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.