President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal division is facing new scrutiny over a plea deal he brokered with a Louisiana district attorney who was accused of coercing sexual favors from as many as two dozen women.
A former FBI agent blasted Kenneth Polite in a whistleblower letter unsealed this week, saying he lacked the courage to seek justice and left victims in the dark about the 2016 case while serving as New Orleans’ top federal prosecutor.
At issue is the case of Harry Morel, the longtime district attorney in suburban St. Charles Parish who was accused of trading sex for leniency for years from women facing criminal charges in his jurisdiction.
But Morel, 78, was never charged with sexual misconduct, even after Polite received Justice Department approval to indict him on racketeering charges.
Instead, he served less than two years in prison after pleading guilty to a single count of obstructing the federal investigation — a deal the former FBI agent likened to the notoriously lenient plea bargain financier Jeffrey Epstein struck with federal prosecutors in Florida in 2008.
As in the Morel case, the many victims of Epstein’s sexual predation were left out of plea negotiations under then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta who later stepped down as labor secretary after new sex trafficking charges were brought against Epstein in New York.
“Polite was supposed to come in and save the day,” said a woman who accused Morel of sexually assaulting her and asked not to be identified. "The handling of the Harry Morel case was a joke.”
Polite, who served as U.S. attorney in New Orleans from 2013 to 2017, referred questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.
If confirmed by the Senate, Polite would supervise more than 600 federal prosecutors and oversee a wide range of criminal cases as assistant attorney general.
Polite has defended Morel’s sentence as a just outcome, noting a previous U.S. attorney declined to bring any charges in the case. The plea deal, Polite told reporters at the time, reflected “significant evidentiary concerns,” including victims who “would prove to be very difficult witnesses” if brought into court.
But former FBI agent Michael S. Zummer wrote in a 31-page letter that “several of the witnesses were prepared to testify and several did not have any ‘baggage’ of any concern." Polite, he wrote, “blamed the victims and witnesses instead of admitting to his and his own office’s failures.”
Tammy Glover, the mother of another Morel victim, said she was in disbelief at Polite’s recent appointment given the way she was treated on his watch.
Glover’s daughter, Danelle Keim, told investigators Morel groped her while she was facing drunken-driving charges in 2010, when she was 24. Keim later wore a wire for the FBI and recorded Morel when he came to her home and sought sexual favors in exchange for help with a DWI charge.
Keim died of an overdose in 2013 just as the investigation became public.
“It was disgusting,” Glover told The Associated Press. “Danelle did everything she was supposed to do and they did nothing with this case. It was like she did it for nothing.”
Morel, in pleading guilty, admitted ordering Keim to destroy a memory card containing photos of the two of them meeting. He also acknowledged he “solicited sex from other individuals who were defendants or who had family members” facing charges.
The Morel case stands out because of the wide gulf between what prosecutors publicly alleged about the district attorney and the actual charge they brought in court. Morel’s defense attorney, Ralph Capitelli, has said that “smear tactic” was intended to shame Morel in the absence of stronger evidence.
The FBI fired Zummer for sending his whistleblower letter without approval to the federal judge who sentenced Morel. The long-sealed letter alleges misconduct involving several prosecutors working under Polite and describes “systemic corruption” in the Justice Department.
In an interview with the AP this week, Zummer said he has no regrets.
“Nominating Ken Polite is no way to restore faith in the federal government,” he said. “He didn’t do the right thing then. He won’t do the right thing now.”
Mustian reported from New York.