Stephanie Grace: Reedcare, for the whole family

A hospital’s primary mission is to take care of people, and I’ll give St. Tammany Parish Hospital this: For years, it sure took care of Walter Reed.

The details remain somewhat muddled, but the picture of an inappropriately cozy relationship between the public hospital and the controversial district attorney is growing clearer by the day.

It’s not cozy anymore, now that both reporters and federal investigators are trying to get to the bottom of the basis of Reed’s $30,000-a-year deal to serve as the hospital’s legal representative. Did he do so in his official capacity or as a private lawyer? Well, see if you can follow along.

Reed deposited the checks into his personal account, according to his spokesman Morgan Stewart, and he declared the outside income on state disclosure forms.

Yet the hospital has long argued that the arrangement was with the office, and late last week, it produced three board-approved resolutions, dated 1992, 1994 and 2001, all designating the DA’s Office as special counsel. The first two named specific assistant district attorneys, and the third listed Reed himself; each noted that an assistant could fill in. Hospital officials said they waited until now to produce the records because of the investigation but said the “executed professional services arrangement was proper, authorized by board resolution, and the requested services were provided.”

Stewart insisted it was all an innocent misunderstanding. He said hospital board Chairman Paul Cordes, who died in 2005, approached Reed in the mid-1990s and asked that he, not an assistant, provide legal services. Reed just assumed he was being asked to serve as a private lawyer, Stewart said, and has now given up the gig only because the misunderstanding has come to light, not because anyone did anything wrong. Stewart also questioned the completeness of the records released by the hospital and cast its statement as “the new board’s view.”

Meanwhile, nobody has explained how Assistant District Attorney Leo Hemelt came to fill in for Reed at some meetings or produced records showing that Reed paid him for his time. If he didn’t, that would amount to Reed collecting cash for a service provided by taxpayers, just as former St. Tammany Coroner Peter Galvan did in an arrangement that figured into his guilty plea last year.

Hemelt reportedly has been subpoenaed by the grand jury looking into Reed’s activities, not only Reed’s deal at the hospital but also his exceedingly expansive interpretation of how candidates can spend campaign contributions.

Equally suspicious is another longstanding employment arrangement, this one between the hospital and Reed’s brother. Richard Reed, who also has left the hospital’s employ since his role came under scrutiny, made $18 an hour and worked full time when he replaced a mailroom clerk who was out on medical leave.

The clerk, a longtime employee named Fayette Dennis, earned $12.50 an hour and had previously seen her hours cut from 40 to 20 due to technological changes, and had lost significant medical and disability benefits in the process. Hospital officials said Reed worked in other departments to fill out the time, an option Dennis said was never offered to her. (After her account was published, a hospital spokeswoman said Dennis was offered continued full-time work in another department but chose to stay in the mailroom.)

Even considering Dennis’ admission that she’d tangled with the hospital over her husband’s medical care, it’s hard to refute her conclusion that Richard Reed was treated differently due to “politics.’’ Particularly because emails published by WVUE-TV and nola.com showed hospital officials knew they had a potential appearance problem on their hands and were thinking in terms of cover-up — or, at least, damage minimization.

In one such message, Vice President Jean Holtman lobbied for the hospital to replace Richard Reed with a full-time employee, in order to persuade the public that his “position was needed’’ in the first place. She wrote that she was concerned it was “obvious” that the hospital had “made a position for Richard” and noted that “this may not be the best light for our hospital to be seen in.’’

Well, Holtman got that last part right.

It’s not clear who knew what about Walter Reed’s legal service, nor when. But the emails about Richard Reed, on top of Dennis’ damning account, suggest that at least some people at the hospital succumbed to pressure to treat the politically powerful differently.

What is obvious at this point, though, is that Walter Reed used his position and influence to feather the family nest in all sorts of ways. And that the hospital was one of many willing enablers.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.