NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A former Louisiana district attorney solicited sex from at least 20 women in exchange for offering favorable treatment from his office, authorities said Wednesday after the veteran prosecutor pleaded guilty to obstructing their long-running investigation of him.
They described him as a sexual predator after he pleaded guilty to a narrowly tailored charge of harassing a witness and trying to get rid of evidence in a federal grand jury investigation that targeted him.
Harry Morel, who served as St. Charles Parish's elected district attorney for 33 years, demanded sex acts in exchange for help with their cases or relatives' cases, prosecutors and investigators said at a news conference after the hearing.
"By title, he was the embodiment of justice," U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite said. "However, in the darkness of his heart, he was something else entirely — a man who perverted his position of power to take sexual advantage of desperate women who needed help. And he did this over and over and over again."
St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said Morel "knew who to target and was good at it."
"Despicably, at least 20 women seeking ... help during the last two decades on St. Charles Parish discovered that a sexual predator was sitting in the chair of the district attorney," the sheriff said.
Morel faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison after his guilty plea to obstruction of justice. His sentencing is set for Aug. 17.
His attorney, Ralph Capitelli, said there was no agreed-upon sentence.
Polite said his predecessor had decided against prosecuting Morel because of a number of legal problems, including whether they could prove explicit demands for sex in exchange for help from his office. But he said he decided the case "called for justice" once he heard the facts.
In the end, prosecutors did not charge Morel with any sexual crimes. Polite, speaking after the court hearing, said justice is a slow and "often imperfect process" and cited the statute of limitations as one reason prosecutors did not pursue the more serious sexual offenses.
Morel, 73, declined to comment after the hearing, but his attorney said officials' comments describing Morel as a sexual predator were a smear tactic to influence sentencing.
Polite said FBI agents and St. Charles Parish sheriff's deputies found other witnesses to support statements by a key witness, now deceased, who put herself and her family at risk and "was unfairly maligned."
A court filing Wednesday refers to that witness only as "Individual A," but Polite and the woman's mother identified her as Danelle Keim, who died of a drug overdose at age 27 on Feb. 9, 2013.
The filing says Morel engaged in "inappropriate behavior" with the woman at her home after her arrest in St. Charles Parish on a drunken driving charge in March 2010. The filing doesn't elaborate on the nature of Morel's behavior but says he discussed the possibility of dropping the charge against her. The woman called 911 after Morel left her home, the document adds.
Wednesday's court filing says Keim agreed to record conversations with Morel for the FBI after he agreed to assist her with new theft and drunken driving charges. Keim's mother, Tammy Glover, said her daughter cooperated with the FBI for more than a year.
"She went undercover with the FBI and exposed him," Glover said in a telephone interview. "If it would not have been for my daughter, who is my hero, (Morel) would have never been exposed. I am amazed at what she did and so very proud of her. She will never be forgotten for her bravery in bringing down Mr. Morel."
Jeff Sallet, special agent in charge of the FBI office in New Orleans, said Keim "should be singled out for her tremendous bravery and resolve during the course of this investigation."
The FBI also videotaped a July 2012 meeting between Morel and Keim at her home. Morel brought two bottles of wine and again attempted to engage in "inappropriate behavior," the filing said.
In 2011, a boyfriend of Keim took photographs of meetings between her and Morel in a courthouse parking lot and at a satellite office for the district attorney's office. Morel instructed Keim to destroy photographic evidence of the meetings, knowing that federal authorities wanted it, Wednesday's court filing says.
"You shoulda got rid of it a long time ago," Morel told her during a 2012 meeting, according to the filing.
The filing says Morel solicited sex from other defendants or relatives of defendants between 2007 and 2009, offering them favorable treatment from his office. But the document doesn't provide any details of those allegations.
Morel, who is free on $50,000 bond pending sentencing, served as district attorney from 1979 to 2012. After opting not to seek re-election, Morel served as an assistant prosecutor under his successor for several months before retiring amid the FBI investigation.
The Mississippi River bisects St. Charles Parish, which is about 20 miles west of New Orleans and has roughly 50,000 residents.
Associated Press writer Kevin McGill contributed to this story.