James Gill: Reed’s antics keep newspapers busy

The New Orleans newspaper war centers these days on the sleazy antics of St. Tammany Parish DA Walter Reed.

Fortunately, there are plenty to go round. That other rag will report some glaringly unethical stunt, and The Advocate an entirely different one. There is fresh dirt almost daily. Sometimes it seems we need a third paper if we are to gauge the full extent of Reed’s greed and treachery.

Surely, the voters now know quite enough, however, to run him out of office at the first opportunity. Not having faced opposition for re-election since 1996, he has evidently felt free to neglect his official duties and concentrate on stuffing his pockets with illicit cash.

When a trucker is booked in a crash that killed two women in St. Tammany Parish, Reed recuses his office and represents the victims’ relatives in a civil suit. The attorney general handles the criminal case, while Reed picks up a hefty fee. Reed pays himself nearly $200,000 a year, more than any other district attorney in Louisiana, and styles himself full-time, which is clearly implausible. He is too busy maintaining a fat practice on the side.

He picks up $30,000 a year from the public hospital in St. Tammany Parish under what he has described as a personal contract. He has not explained how come an assistant district attorney sometimes attends meetings in his stead.

Certainly Reed has a sufficient income to pay his own bills, but he prefers not to. He has continued raising money for election campaigns that never happen and has lived large on the proceeds. The $2.6 million he has splurged since 1996 has included meals at fancy restaurants, unexplained credit card charges and various other evidently personal expenses. And when Reed has staged fundraisers, companies owned by his son Steven have been hired on insanely generous terms.

It may be that donors don’t care what politicians do with their money, provided they remember to be grateful, but the law specifies that contributions “may not be used for any personal use unrelated to a political campaign or the holding of public office.” If the law allowed candidates to regard campaign contributions as their private spending money, the corruption of the system would be complete.

Because Reed’s backers have been confident for years that he would remain in office without the inconvenience of an election, perhaps it occurred to some of them they were just handing over cash to be spent on his whim. In such circumstances, the difference between a contribution and a payoff may not always be easy to discern. The concern for an “appearance of impropriety” that Reed cited in recusing himself from the trucker case does not apply to his financial affairs.

But then he never has hesitated to stoop low for a dollar. He avoided four years of Tulane tuition by mooching a legislative scholarship for another son, Reagan. Family values are important to Reed, as we saw some years ago when his stepson got drunk, crashing a speedboat and killing his passenger. Justice was served, according to Reed, with probation and no jail time.

Reed is never so forgiving with other people’s children, reveling in St. Tammany Parish’s reputation for savage sentences and warning south shore riff-raff not to invade his turf if they want to avoid a long stretch in Angola.

Indeed, when the press asks for comment on the latest of his dubious stunts, Reed will issue a statement scrupulously avoiding the issue and boasting about what a bang-up job your hard-nosed DA has done to keep St. Tammany safe.

Well, if the DA is too busy lining his pockets to do his job when fatalities occur on his roads, he can hardly claim a significant role in maintaining public safety. The only cause to which Reed is unquestionably devoted is his own material well-being.

But that’s OK because so long as he is DA, there’ll be plenty of action on the St. Tammany Parish front to keep the newspaper war humming.

James Gill can be reached at jgill@theadvocate.com.