Nearly five years after former Gov. Edwin Edwards' conviction on federal racketeering charges, public corruption is beginning to wane in Louisiana, according to the top FBI official in the state. "I think Louisiana has made progress," says Louis M. Reigel III, who left last week as special-agent-in-charge (SAC) of the FBI in Louisiana. "I think we're at the point where [public corruption is] starting to subside."
Louisiana last year ranked No. 3 in federal public corruption cases in 2004 among all 56 FBI field offices in the United States and its territories. In 2000, the year a federal jury in Baton Rouge convicted Edwards and several associates of corrupting the state licensing process for the riverboat gaming industry, Louisiana ranked first among all FBI offices in federal corruption cases.
"We're starting to see the public come forward, maybe not directly to the FBI but to organizations like Crimestoppers Inc. and the Metropolitan Crime Commission, and that information is given to the FBI," says Reigel, who assumed command of the bureau's field office in New Orleans nearly two years ago.
To hear Reigel tell it, the FBI is getting more enthusiastic cooperation for public corruption probes from Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the Legislature and local authorities than from businesses in the state. "The business community that is constantly being tapped (by public officials) for 10 percent here or 20 percent there ... that's the community that needs to come forward even more so than they are doing today," Reigel says.
Reigel says the FBI is getting "fabulous" cooperation from state and local law enforcement for federal public corruption investigations. But he acknowledges there are exceptions among the 64 parishes. "The lack of cooperation from some of the parishes are probably based on political connections or political reasons," says Reigel.
While counter-terrorism is the FBI's national priority, public corruption remains the top criminal priority for the bureau in Louisiana -- "especially in New Orleans," he says. After taking charge of the FBI here on June 2, 2003 -- following a public backlash against the local feds over the Canal Street brothel case -- Reigel has overseen probes of city government in New Orleans, the state judiciary in Jefferson Parish, Orleans Parish Public Schools, New Orleans Traffic Court, and scattered police corruption cases. There about 20 other ongoing FBI investigations in the 13-parish jurisdiction of the federal Eastern District of Louisiana, he says. "There are a couple of fairly significant corruption cases that my successor will hopefully see come to fruition," he says.
On Dec. 24, FBI Director Robert Mueller III promoted Reigel, a 30-year veteran agent, to head the bureau's cyber-crime division in Washington. But Reigel says he received permission to stay in New Orleans longer because of several cases with which he has been heavily involved. His last day was Feb. 25.
"I just wanted to stand beside the (FBI case) supervisor (and local U.S. Attorney Jim) Letten when we announce the indictments," Reigel says.
Asked what New Orleans can do to address its chronically high homicide rates, Reigel says a number of factors come into play, including economics, improving the court system, and continuing cooperation among law enforcement.
The New Orleans Criminal Court system is "broken," he says. District Attorney Eddie Jordan's prosecutors are "understaffed, underpaid and overworked." But Reigel also acknowledges that Jordan, a former U.S. Attorney, has endured public criticism for firing several dozen experienced investigators, many of whom are currently suing him for racial discrimination.
In addition, while the FBI found no evidence of judicial corruption in Orleans Parish, the "rapid" release of known criminal offenders is increasing crime in the city, Reigel says. "Orleans Parish has a problem of criminals getting into and out of a courtroom in rapid succession," he says.
Out of 144 violent suspects arrested as a result of a joint FBI-NOPD effort in 2004, 98 percent had prior criminal records. "And the majority of those individuals were pending some kind of criminal action in the (state) court system," Reigel says. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten is now prosecuting all of the suspects in federal court. "I don't think these guys will see the light of day for quite some time," Reigel says.
Reigel also says NOPD is understaffed and that the ongoing dispute over the city residency requirement is a major obstacle to beefing up the force. "I think the big issue is probably residency right now and it's a political issue," Reigel says. "Until the politics are put on the side, I think that Eddie (Compass) is going to have a difficult task of continuing to recruit from within the city."
The FBI doesn't have an official opinion on the city residency issue, Reigel says. The bureau also does not have a county or parish residency requirement for its employees. "We have a requirement that you have to live within 50 miles of an office, unless you have gotten an exception from the agent-in-charge," Reigel says.
Reigel says he hopes the city and NOPD will explore alternatives to the current residency criteria. "Why not test it? If it doesn't work in a couple of years, go back to the old way."
Elsewhere, joint efforts between the FBI and the NOPD to attack "hot zones" for crime have kept the violence from spiraling. "The NOPD has the experience," Reigel says. "They know where the crime is. They identify those hot zones and we clean those areas up, which is a good thing. The bad thing is we then move onto the next hot zone, and [criminals] go back to the hot zone we just left."
Reigel declines comment on an ongoing FBI probe of city government that has included subpoenas for relatives and associates of former Mayor Marc Morial, as well as on the controversial joint FBI-IRS raid last year on the French Quarter home of Jacques Morial, the brother of former Mayor Morial. But in a wide-ranging interview conducted a week before he left his post, Reigel offered his views on other local issues involving the FBI:
SCHOOLS. The Louisiana FBI is the only one of the 56 field offices that has established a presence in a school district headquarters. The FBI, IRS and federal education officials have been working on an anti-corruption task force at the district's Algiers office since last April. The task force was formed at the request of Superintendent Anthony Amato after audits turned up widespread financial irregularities.
"I can tell you I think it's improving," Reigel says of fiscal accountability at the school district. "I think the new school board will continue to improve the situation over there. There are more (financial) checks and balances in place now -- but it wouldn't take much because there were very few to begin with."
A number of mostly low-level school district employees have been indicted on federal charges stemming from the probe. More indictments are expected in March. "You are going to see another two waves of indictments of probably eight to ten (people) in each indictment," Reigel says. But he does not expect any indictments of past or present school board members. "I don't think it's at that level," he says.
OPERATION WRINKLED ROBE. The FBI probe of judicial corruption in Jefferson Parish has resulted in the federal conviction of former Judge Ronald Bodenheimer, the federal indictment of Judge Alan Green, and guilty pleas by former bail bond mogul Louis Marcotte III and half a dozen jailers formerly employed by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office.
But Reigel says the seven-year-old probe has continued for too long. "It drove me nuts," he says. "When I saw that and read that file, I said: 'This is absurd. We've got to put an end to this.' ... There are a few things dangling out there, but it's almost done."
THE CANAL STREET BROTHEL. Reigel arrived in the wake of the federal racketeering case against the Canal Street brothel. The case resulted in a community backlash against Reigel predecessor Ken Kaiser and the U.S. Attorney's Office. The feds were faulted for prosecuting far more of the female prostitutes than their well-heeled male clientele. The feds said the prosecution of most of the customers was the responsibility of former District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., who countered that the case was the government's problem.
Reigel was in Washington D.C. with FBI Director Mueller as the drama unfolded in New Orleans. "I remember I was in the director's office when he talked to me about the new position down here and he said, 'Now you're not going to go down there and work prostitution cases are you?' I said, 'No sir, I think there are probably higher priority cases we should be working.'"
Upon further review, however, Reigel suggests that the local feds were aiming at public corruption targets. "There was probably more to that case than will ever be made public," Reigel says. "I think the United States Attorney's Office, had the times been different [and] had not 9/11 happened, I think there would have been more to it than just the prostitution issues."
STATEWIDE CORRUPTION. The 9/11 attacks postponed the bureau's efforts to root out the statewide corruption that the feds uncovered during the Edwards trial five years ago, Reigel acknowledges. The FBI got back on track last October, establishing a second public corruption squad in Baton Rouge that made Louisiana one of only five FBI field offices with corruption squads. A new statewide hotline has established the FBI's reach into northern Louisiana and the bureau hopes to establish FBI offices in Shreveport and Monroe in the future.
"You have corruption in Shreveport and Monroe," Reigel says. "The statewide hotline has helped some but there needs to be a presence in those cities and I think in time you are going to see that."
Aided by 15 to 20 calls daily to a new hotline administrated by the private Metropolitan Crime Commission, the FBI's anti-corruption squad in Baton Rouge is already swamped with cases in the capitol area. "They have more cases than the nine agents can work," Reigel says. "I thought it would take about 18 months to really build the squad up, to develop cases and make it successful. ... So now I am in a dilemma. I've got 20 agents up there. Do we move the other 11 agents over to the public corruption side and address it? Or do we just take some of the (lower-level) cases and put them on the back burner until we can address them later?"
Reigel says he consulted his mentor James V. DeSarno Jr. before moving to his new position in New Orleans. DeSarno was in charge of the New Orleans FBI office from 1995 to 1997, during the bureau's efforts to crack down on corrupt and brutal cops inside the NOPD.
What advice did DeSarno give Reigel about working in New Orleans? "He told me you have to be cautious as to who you are dealing with," Reigel says. "Certainly, be prudent in your conversations. Be in the community. He gave me the names of certain individuals to get to know and could trust, Raphael Goyeneche and John Casbon." (Goyeneche is president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission; Casbon is chairman of the private New Orleans Police Foundation.)
"[DeSarno] also told me don't hold back, if something's screwed up don't hold back. Don't embarrass the FBI, but don't hold back on being aggressive and getting things done."
As special-agent-in-charge, Reigel has been responsible for the enforcement of more than 300 federal laws in Louisiana. SACs help provide resources and direction to supervisory agents for cases. They also represent the FBI to the public and to other government agencies, such as NOPD.
Peter Scharf, director of the University of New Orleans Center for Society, Law and Justice, has been working with Reigel since he arrived here to develop a regional computer forensic laboratory for law enforcement at UNO. Some FBI agents are more insular than others, Scharf says. Reigel has been more outgoing than most.
"He's an FBI agent -- straight out of central casting," says Scharf with a laugh, referring to Reigel's clean-shaven, straight-laced appearance.
Reigel formed the first FBI Citizens' Academy at the New Orleans field office, an optional outreach program that has been available to FBI special agents since 1993. He also kicked off an effort to improve relations with residents in public housing.
"He has done a lot of outreach, to the citizens and the media," Scharf says of Reigel. "He also was a major player in keeping violent crime in New Orleans from getting worse."
Reigel, the ninth SAC for the Louisiana FBI in the last 25 years, says he will recommend that the new SAC continue the FBI outreach programs and stay visible in the community. "Post 9/11, it's not possible for the 175 agents in this office and the 110 support employees to do the job without the public's help," he says.
A native of the British West Indies whose previous assignments included Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Tampa, Fla., Reigel is married to an FBI agent and has two grown stepchildren. He gained 10 pounds during his brief tenure and on the advice of his FBI mentor participated in a Carnival parade in Slidell -- escorting the queen of the Krewe of Selene. "This is by far the best assignment I've ever had with the FBI i n my 30 years come May," says Reigel, who is now pondering retirement -- perhaps to the New Orleans area.