NEW ORLEANS -- A suspended FBI agent has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the bureau, the special agent in charge of the New Orleans FBI branch and other FBI officials, alleging they unfairly silenced and punished him after he notified a judge of what he considered prosecutorial misconduct by the New Orleans U.S. attorney’s office.
Special Agent Mike Zummer has been suspended since Sept. 30, 2016, without pay and is prohibited from using his law degree or taking any other employment without approval from FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Jeffrey Sallet, according to Zummer’s lawsuit.
Zummer says he was punished for speaking out about the Justice Department’s failure to fully prosecute former St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel. Zummer led the FBI’s investigation of Morel for allegedly offering help with cases or lenient treatment to more than two dozen women in exchange for sexual favors.
The U.S. attorney’s office in New Orleans initially declined to prosecute Morel when Zummer presented the federal prosecutors with the results of “Operation Twisted Justice.” When Kenneth Polite took over as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana in 2013, Polite said he ignored the advice of several veteran prosecutors in his office and resurrected the case Zummer had built against Morel.
But the disgraced D.A. ended up pleading guilty in April 2016 to just a single count of obstruction of justice.
Outraged by the light charge, Zummer drafted a letter in June 2016 and sought approval through proper channels at the FBI to send it to U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt before Engelhardt sentenced Morel on Aug. 17, 2016. But the FBI did not respond to several requests by Zummer to allow him to send the letter to the judge, so the agent went ahead and sent it without approval.
The letter was not released to the public, but Engelhardt made reference to it in the court record, indicating that he found Zummer’s allegations “troubling” and shared his chief concerns.
“The legitimate concerns of FBI Special Agent Zummer—that the Department of Justice is either unable or unwilling to self-police lapses of ethics, professionalism and truthfulness in its ranks—are shared by the undersigned, particularly over the last few years," Engelhardt wrote.
But just two weeks after the sentencing, the FBI suspended Zummer from investigative work for sending the letter to Engelhardt. And a month later, he was suspended without pay and had his security clearance revoked.
Zummer then sent a copy of the letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who opened an inquiry and publicly questioned if the FBI was retaliating against a whistleblower.
In January 2017, the FBI home office in Washington finally allowed Zummer to release to the media a heavily redacted version of his letter to Engelhardt. More than half the pages were completely blacked out, but in the parts that were readable, Zummer alleged “prosecutorial misconduct” in the New Orleans U.S. Attorney’s Office and claimed the best FBI agents are “angry and disillusioned” by “how prosecutors mishandle cases.”
Zummer accused longtime prosecutor Fred Harper of protecting Morel because he is a close friend of Morel’s attorney, Ralph Capitelli. But Polite said Harper had nothing to do with the decisions in the Morel case and his relationship with Capitelli had been addressed to avoid conflicts long ago. Interviewed in January, Capitelli called Zummer “a disgruntled, rogue agent who's behaving like a spoiled kid who doesn't get his way.”
Zummer has asked for his job back, back pay and the right to publicly release the full text of the letters.