U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite recently visited St. Charles Parish and vowed that he is determined to crack down on public corruption.
His appearance and statements came only weeks after a subpoena was served to the St. Charles Parish Clerk of Court’s Office in an apparent investigation into former St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel.
An investigation into Morel’s final term in office began in January 2013 when the FBI seized files related to accusations that Morel had offered leniency in criminal cases in return for sexual favors.
However, shortly after the investigation began, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana was thrown into upheaval over a scandal involving assistant U.S. district attorneys. Those assistant attorneys posted comments under pseudonyms on news websites about cases they were investigating and taking to court.
Within months, several longtime assistant U.S. attorneys resigned as did U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who had held the position for 11 years. Letten presided over several successful public corruption convictions including that of former four-term governor and current congressional candidate Edwin W. Edwards, former St. John the Baptist Parish President Bill Hubbard and former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard for bribery and conspiracy.
In his short time as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Polite said he has already improved the system through which public corruption cases are handled by creating a Public Integrity Unit.
“I have certainly inherited a strong reputation from Jim (Letten) and even some of his predecessors who have had some very important public corruption cases in our office. Frankly, there is always a way to do things a little bit better and that is why I made the decision to start and establish the first Public Integrity Unit in the office focused exclusively on corruption,” Polite said.
Polite said the Public Integrity Unit will focus solely on public corruption and police misconduct cases in an attempt to step up investigative efforts and increase conviction rates.
“Before (now), in my view, those types of investigations were done inefficiently. They were spread out into two, three and sometimes even four units in the office. So what we’ve done is tried to identify some of our most able, experienced prosecutors in that particular area and house them in the (Public Integrity Unit),” he said.
Since being sworn in, Polite has already overseen high-profile public corruption cases such as the bribery conviction of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and the conviction of former St. Tammany Parish coroner Peter Galvan for inappropriately spending public funds.
However, other investigations, such as that of Morel, appear to have taken a back seat in the 10-month interim between Letten’s resignation in December 2012 and Polite’s swearing in last September.
Polite said although some cases appear to have gone dormant over the course of the gap in leadership, his office is now back to full power and is committed to investigating all public corruption cases.
“We are committed in our office, as we have been for sometime, to rooting out corruption in our state,” he said.
Morel served as the parish’s district attorney for nearly 33 years before retiring in May 2011. Last year, the FBI was said to be investigating whether convicted felon Errol Falcon Jr. asked his girlfriend, 27-year-old Danelle Keim, to perform sexual acts with Morel in exchange for leniency. However, Keim was found dead last February due to a drug overdose. Her boyfriend at the time, Matthew Savoie, was arrested in connection with Keim’s death because he provided the drugs that she overdosed on.
Morel’s attorney, Ralph Capatelli, said last November that a federal official informed him that no charges would be filed against Morel. He said Keim was the prosecution’s only witness and the case collapsed after her death.
Without their lead witness, it appeared that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had suffered a major setback in their investigation. However, on May 9, St. Charles Parish Clerk of Court Lance Marino said he had received a second subpoena from the FBI instructing him to turn over all criminal felony records related to Falcon from Dec. 1, 2009 until May 1, 2014.
When asked about the Morel case, Polite said he would neither confirm nor deny an ongoing investigation.
“Unfortunately, I won’t be able to comment on it,” he said.