Hemelt: Each newspaper story fights public corruption

Published 12:02 am Saturday, May 14, 2016

A recent, headline-making public corruption trial shined a spotlight on my profession and a member of my close family.

It also drove home the point that newspapers (their websites included) remain an absolute necessity as the public’s No. 1 check on public corruption, whether it be law enforcement, judicial or government in nature.

The Times-Picayune/Nola.com teamed with Fox 8 reporters a few years ago to begin their “Louisiana Purchased” series.

The work delved into the campaign finances of Louisiana political races, finding top campaign contributors often received contracts and board appointments while enjoying state policies favorable for their industries.

In a discovery that surely was not surprising to savvy area residents, the news outlets’ reporting showed many politicians spend thousands of dollars in “campaign contributions” on New Orleans Saints and LSU football tickets, fancy meals and gifts to relatives.

Par for the Louisiana political course? It doesn’t have to be.

Those who cheat the public trust through elected office deserve jail.

That’s not just a working man’s pipe dream. A look at the (jail) records of recent St. John the Baptist Parish presidents and mayors of New Orleans indicates those who play often have to pay.

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards might have been the most charismatic and astute politician to come out of Louisiana in the last 50 years. It didn’t help him avoid eight years in prison.

I wonder if he would trade the marriage it cost him and some of his famous one-liners to get that near decade of freedom back?

This has been on my mind recently because the Louisiana Purchased series shined a spotlight on longtime St. Tammany and Washington Parishes District Attorney Walter Reed.

Reed was in power for decades, so without the reporting that questioned his corrupt dealings representing St. Tammany Parish Hospital or lavish spending to son Steven Reed, there would have never been a trial for mail and wire fraud, money laundering and lying on his tax returns.

What ultimately culminated from the reporting was an 11-day corruption trial and a jury that returned guilty verdicts on 18 of the 19 counts.

The man who oversaw one of the most aggressive and successful prosecution teams in South Louisiana will now spend the next portion of his life behind bars. Plus, he gets to know his actions directly led to his son joining him there.

The New Orleans Advocate put together an analysis piece on the Reed trial in the days after its conclusion.

The article by Sara Pagones suggests testimony of former Assistant District Attorney Leo Hemelt — who told the jury his former boss asked him to sign a false affidavit saying Hemelt had been offered money to attend St. Tammany Parish Hospital board meetings, but had refused to take it — was the most damaging blow to Reed.

According to Pagones’ reporting, the government said Reed pocketed $30,000 a year from the public hospital intended for the D.A.’s Office. The fact Reed sent Leo Hemelt to fill in at the meetings was impossible to justify.

Jack Hoffstadt, another former Reed staffer, told the Advocate of Leo Hemelt, “This guy is pristine and totally ethical. It’s Walter versus him. Leo had absolutely nothing to gain for himself by testifying. All he got was to lose a job he loved.”

Leo Hemelt might be a footnote in this corruption trial for most readers, but he will always remain my godfather, or Paran, as I have called him my whole life.

As my dad’s older brother, he’s been part of my life since I born. My dad once called him the best man he has ever known.

Integrity might be tough to define, but it’s easy to spot in those who have it.

Great newspaper reporters and public servants have it.

This latest corruption trial proved it again.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.