U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley is questioning the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice over whether an alleged conflict of interest got former St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel Jr.’s a lenient plea agreement in his sex-for-leniency case.
Grassley, head of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, additionally posed questions in a Nov. 15 letter on whether they retaliated against FBI Special Agent Michael Zummer for reporting the alleged conflict. Zummer, who investigated the Morel case, was suspended in September.
Grassley states Zummer told the Judiciary Committee “that a relationship between then-First Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Harper and defense attorney Ralph Capitelli may have resulted in a lenient plea agreement” for Morel.
Capitelli, with the New Orleans firm Capitelli & Wicker, is Morel’s attorney. He could not be reached for comment Thursday (Dec. 1).
On Aug. 17, Morel was sentenced to three years in federal prison on one count obstruction of justice in an FBI investigation into his sexual misconduct in office. He entered the Federal Correctional Institution, a low-security facility in Seagoville, Texas, to begin his sentence in September.
But Grassley is questioning why Morel was not charged with any sexual offenses. He also requests more information about Harper and Capitelli having owned a condominium together until March 2013, when Harper transferred ownership to his girlfriend.
Harper was reportedly involved in the Attorney General Office decision not to prosecute Morel in 2013. Zummer filed a complaint with the Office of the Inspector General this same year against Harper for failing to recuse himself from matters involving Capitelli, according to Grassley.
Zummer maintained he was retaliated against for filing the complaint. He said it included refusing to prosecute his cases and later the Attorney General refusing to accept an FBI referral to name him as special assistant U.S. Attorney to prosecute FBI cases.
By 2015, under new U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, Morel’s case was reopened and “it became apparent that the USAO would not indict Morel, but would seek a plea agreement. Zummer expressed his intent to report concerns to the court about the conflict of interest between Harper and Capitelli.”
On Aug. 11, Zummer submitted his letter to U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt criticizing the U.S. Justice Department’s prosecution of Morel and in particular the Harper-Capitelli alleged conflict of interest. Engelhardt, who sentenced Morel, refused to release the letter, but said Zummer raised legitimate concerns about the Justice Department being either “unable or unwilling” to police ethical lapses in its ranks.
By September, the FBI suspended Zummer indefinitely without pay, and removed his security clearance.
But Grassley states, “That looks like it could be a misuse of the security clearance process to mask retaliation for protected whistleblowing.”