22 women allege abuse in FBI report
“I am no longer keeping your secrets. I am no longer going to be one of your victims.”
Those heartfelt words were taken from one of the victim letters directed at former St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel, who held the parish’s most powerful law enforcement office for 33 years. Morel, who in April pleaded guilty to obstructing justice, will begin a three-year prison sentence on Monday, Sept. 26.
Though Morel will serve three years in jail, his sentence is considered lenient by some. The U.S. Department of Justice considered charging Morel with 30 racketeering acts that included solicitations of sexual bribes in violation of state law and federal obstruction of justice acts.
Instead, Morel accepted a plea deal with a single obstruction of justice charge. U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite said the charge was a just outcome because some witnesses “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.”
22 women come forward with allegations of abuse
Called a “sexual predator” by local and federal authorities, an investigation into Morel’s wrongdoing, called Operation Twisted Justice, uncovered 22 women who alleged their unwanted sexual encounters with Morel, “all in connection with his position as a public official,” according to an FBI report released by the Sheriff’s Office Monday. These encounters took place either in exchange for leniency in criminal cases or for help with non-criminal matters. Five women admitted to oral sex with Morel, while eight admitted to other sexual contact. Nine women said that Morel solicited sex from them.
One of the women said Morel pressed against her and asked for sex. Morel did this, she said, knowing his office had previously prosecuted someone for sexually assaulting her.Another woman said she met with Morel to discuss a criminal charge and he forced her to have oral sex. When she asked for help with another charge, she says Morel shoved her onto his desk and got on top of her.
When another woman needed help with a non-criminal legal matter, she says Morel grabbed her by the neck and forced her to perform oral sex on him. When she refused to perform again, the woman says Morel stopped his office’s assistance.
The FBI’s report also outlined statements from other witnesses as follows:-
•Witness 2 asked Morel for help with a charge against a third party. “He pushed her against the wall and kissed her. She refused him. Later, she went again for help. He grabbed her, held her and kissed her during that visit.”
•When Witness 3 asked Morel to drop charges against a third party, he asked for sex. “She believed Morel was turned on because he saw track marks on her arm.” Soon after, Morel called and asked for sex, which she arranged for him to have “with another witness.”
•Witness 4 met Morel and had sex with him to help another witness with her legal issues. “Morel also paid her,” the report states. “Witness 4 has oral sex with Morel for help with at least two other charges.”
•Witness 5 asked Morel for help with traffic issues “then he met with her for oral sex. Morel had oral sex with her a few more times. He took care of another traffic issue for her.”
•Witness 9 told the FBI that she went to Morel for help because she was concerned about a third party being charged with a crime. She states Morel grabbed her “by the neck and forced her face into his lap while he unzipped his pants. She did not perform oral sex on him.”
Letters illustrate Morel’s ‘twisted justice’
Before Morel was sentenced, several women wrote letters to the federal court claiming they were abused by Morel. Their names were blacked out to protect their identities, but their statements outline a pattern of behavior with the former DA and how their encounters with him forever affected their lives.
In one letter, a woman says Morel “became her nightmare” in 1996. Morel had previously helped the woman secure a significant sum of back child support, and the former DA wanted to take a photo with her for his re-election campaign. The woman arrived at the photo shoot with her mother, but her mother had to leave for an appointment. She says Morel volunteered to give her a ride home.
“Of course, my mother and I had no reason at the time not to trust the DA of St. Charles Parish. After all, his wife had taught me in school and he went to the same church as my parents,” the woman wrote.
She says that Morel insisted on taking her to New Orleans for sushi and began making flattering comments about her looks.
“He talked about his camp in Mississippi, and how he would like to take me there for ‘play’ time. I quickly realized that an inappropriate situation was developing and I was trapped. When we arrived at our destination in New Orleans, he sexually assaulted me in the car. He began telling me that if I wanted my ex-husband to continue to pay child support that I needed to allow him sexual favors.”
In the 20 years that followed the incident, the women said she kept it hidden from her mother. In fact, she held her mother responsible for the situation and didn’t speak to her for several years.
“My mother is no longer with me and I was never able to tell her what had happened,” the woman wrote. “To my mother, I am so sorry that I was angry with you for something you were not aware of and certainly wasn’t responsible for.”
In another letter, a father recounts how Morel preyed on his daughter, which traumatized her and forced her to seek counseling.
“Morel deserves much more than the three years he got in the plea bargain. It is very disappointing to me that he seems to be getting off so lightly,” the father wrote.
He said his family was forced to keep the incident a secret due to the power Morel wielded in St. Charles Parish.“We knew he was a powerful politician and was a very vindictive man,” he wrote. “We were so relieved when news of it came out knowing that there were other women who were his victims.”
A third alleged victim emerged in still another letter to FBI Agent Michael Zummer, who was credited with the dogged determination that brought Morel’s case to fruition. The woman met with Morel to discuss a 2000 DWI charge.
“Upon the closing of our conversation, the following words came out of his mouth, ‘What number can I reach you at that your boyfriend will not answer?’” she states. “I was almost speechless, but quickly moved through to the end of the conversation and left his office. As I walked to my car, I began to process what had just occurred. I was outraged….”
The woman reached out to the FBI and started wearing a wire. Morel soon contacted her for a meeting and mentioned “he had a camp or something like that and was coming to Houma for some event, maybe a fishing or golf event,” but there were no meetings despite multiple attempts. By then, the woman had missed her court date and Morel contacted her.
“‘I see that you missed your court date. Now you will really need my help,’” she says Morel told her.
Outraged by the statement, the woman said she cursed him out and hung up. During one of her court dates, she attempted to visit Morel, but she maintains he left her waiting two hours until she told his secretary that if he didn’t see her she’d contact Channel 8 news. After the threat, she says Morel called her into his office. She got her license back, paid no more fines and Morel signed an expungement.
“What happened to me did have a huge negative impact on my life,” the woman wrote.
One woman wrote that she came forward after hearing about Danelle Keim.
Keim died from a drug overdose in 2012, but the audio recordings and video produced from the FBI surveillance she assisted in gathering prior to her death were used as evidence in the obstruction of justice charge against Morel. Morel’s single obstruction of justice charge stems from Morel having asked Keim to destroy a photo that showed her vehicle parked at Morel’s office after hours.
“If this were just about me, I may have stayed silent and continued to move forward with my life, but it isn’t just about me,” the woman wrote. “A young woman named Danelle Keim, lost her life due to the entanglement of Harry Morel’s inappropriate behavior and misconduct regarding his empowerment as district attorney. I feel that I not only have a moral obligation to speak up, but I must speak up for Danelle as well, who no longer has a voice.”
Sheriff calls Morel a sexual predator
St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne also wrote that Morel “infected” the parish’s criminal justice system.“Every time Morel asked for sexual favors, he compromised the St. Charles Parish criminal justice system by relinquishing a part of the legal and moral authority that the people had given him.”
The sheriff, who calls Morel a “sexual predator,” states crime declined substantially since Morel’s departure as DA.
“He victimized the entire parish to satisfy his libido and his ego,” states Champagne, who adds Morel should feel fortunate to only get a three-year sentence. “There has been not one word of remorse or contrition from Morel’s mouth since pleading guilty. All he has done is continue to minimize his culpability and behavior.”
Champagne adds in his letter, “Our former district attorney forced the most vulnerable women in our society to endure his assaults on their dignity, and at other times, endure actual battery upon their bodies. They suffered his requests to satisfy his base desires so they could avoid prosecution by his office or to encourage him to enforce laws he was already sworn to uphold.”
A powerful office abused
After 33 years of serving in one of the parish’s most powerful offices, Morel’s guilty plea to obstructing justice struck at the very core of the DA office’s mission to uphold the law.
By May 31, 2011 when Morel retired, he recounted his legacy as the parish’s longtime DA.
After beating four competitors in his first election in 1979, Morel won five straight elections without opposition and then announced he was stepping down to avoid a conflict with his daughter, Michele Morel, who was running for judge in the parish. Joel Chaisson II then won the office, a position he holds today.
By 2012, Morel was celebrating his retirement having just returned from a 10-day Alaskan cruise paid for by his office staff as a retirement gift. He was reminiscent about his path to the office, as well as his life, in an interview this same year with the Herald-Guide.
Early on, Morel said he was not sure he wanted to be a lawyer until he was preparing to graduate from LSU with a degree in English education.
“I wanted to be a baseball player,” he said. Morel played baseball at Jesuit and went on to play at LSU. He was elected to the school’s hall of fame and his picture still stands outside of the stadium.
Morel said it was at that same stadium where he met his wife Gwen.
“She was from Des Allemands and I was from New Orleans,” Morel said. “She was a senior in high school and she was up there for rush and I met her and we started dating when she got to LSU. I graduated in 1965 and we got married in 1965.” Morel becomes a lawyer
Morel said at first he thought he might go on to be a teacher and baseball coach, but that he had seen his father struggle to support their family as a music teacher and orchestra leader in New Orleans. He wanted something better for his family.
“I became a lawyer and made a good choice obviously,” Morel said in an earlier Herald-Guide story. “I’ve had a good life. I’m a very, very lucky guy.”
Morel said in his time as D.A. he tried to run a fair office that was focused on helping people who had made mistakes in their lives get better.
“I’ve never thought that everyone who gets arrested belongs in jail,” he said. “So I try and work it out.”
During his career, Morel also served as president of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association and represented Louisiana as a board member for the National District Attorney’s Association.
“I haven’t regretted it,” Morel said in 2012 about his career. “Not one day. I’d do it all over.”