[StBernard] Arrested judge handled some of St. Bernard's biggest cases
westley at da-parish.com
Sat May 2 23:30:15 EDT 2009
Arrested judge handled some of St. Bernard's biggest cases
by Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
Saturday May 02, 2009, 9:31 PM
A onetime New Orleans city attorney who came to prominence after a
hard-fought, underdog election for a St. Bernard Parish judgeship in 1999,
Wayne Cresap led a quiet life in a parish legendary for its political
He gained a reputation as a jurist who doled out hefty bonds and long jail
sentences and as a friend to St. Bernard sheriff's deputies who strongly
supported his only competitive election a decade ago.
But before he was vaulted into the public limelight last week after being
arrested by the FBI on wire fraud charges, the 62-year-old judge had been a
central figure in some of St. Bernard's most far-reaching and controversial
lawsuits, court records and interviews show.
His rulings in 2002 and 2003 put him in the middle of the twisted,
politically charged fight over the estimated $250 million estate left by
Arlene Meraux, the heiress to St. Bernard land baron Joseph Meraux's
And his behavior at another 2002 hearing relating to a massive case brought
against the state by oyster harvesters earned him a rebuke by the Louisiana
"He was never one to shy away from those controversial type of cases," said
longtime Chalmette lawyer John Finckbeiner Jr., who moved his practice to
the French Quarter after 2005 but tries numerous cases in St. Bernard's 34th
Judicial District. But as a politician, Finckbeiner said, Cresap "was never
one of the big social guys."
"He would do things for the community, but he wasn't one to be running to
every event and every dinner at the Chamber and the Kiwanis Club, and this
fair and that fair."
News of Cresap's alleged involvement in a judicial corruption scheme with at
least two unnamed lawyers has left St. Bernard's tight-knit legal community
at the center of a whirlwind of rumors.
"Of course everybody's kind of shocked that it happened. That's some really
strong charges, you know, not only for the judge, but also for the lawyers
involved," Chalmette attorney Alan Bouterie said. "It kind of throws a cloud
over every lawyer down here. If there's two lawyers out of 40 lawyers down
here now practicing actively, that means there's 38 people who have a cloud
over them totally unjustified."
According to an FBI affidavit, Cresap allegedly took cash for allowing
inmates to be released from the St. Bernard Parish Prison without putting up
money for the bond.
The two lawyers, described in the affidavit as "Lawyer A" and "Lawyer B,"
would take cash from the inmate's family or friends and then split the money
with Cresap after the bond was converted. The two lawyers have not been
arrested or named, and Cresap was released from Orleans Parish Prison on
Monday night on a $100,000 signature bond -- the same type of bond he is
accused of rigging for bribes.
Efforts to reach Cresap and his defense attorney, Pat Fanning, were
Cresap was arrested April 24 and charged based on a criminal complaint, an
unusual move. Federal authorities typically seek an indictment from a grand
jury and let defendants surrender. But U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said last
week that the FBI's arrest came because of concerns that Cresap might harm
Cresap has not worked since April 10, when he took a leave for medical
reasons. The district's other judges are handling his caseload.
Unlike many in St. Bernard's small political sphere, Cresap was not born and
bred in the suburban parish. He grew up in New Orleans, attended De La Salle
High School in Uptown and worked for the city of New Orleans for years,
including a stint as an assistant city attorney. He ran unsuccessfully for
First City Court judge in New Orleans' Civil District Court in 1980.
Before moving to St. Bernard Parish, he raised some eyebrows in 1981 when he
sued Chalmette's Mystic Krewe of Shangri-La, a women's Carnival club,
claiming the organization breached a contract that would have let him reign
as king during the 1982 Carnival season. He asked for $100,000 for
"humiliation and embarrassment."
Judge Melvyn Perez, Cresap's predecessor in Division C, ruled in favor of
the krewe. Cresap appealed the decision to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal,
which backed Perez.
Cresap went on to work as a trial lawyer in Chalmette and became active on
the board of the St. Bernard chapter of the Alliance for Good Government.
His political ascendancy was aided by Sheriff Jack Stephens, who threw his
support behind Cresap in a tight runoff in 1999 against St. Bernard attorney
Gregory Noto. Cresap was on Stephens' payroll in the 1990s as legal counsel,
and he had represented deputies in other cases as a trial lawyer in St.
But Stephens said he supported Cresap because of a groundswell from the
rank-and-file in his department.
"He was a real longshot to win; he was a newcomer to politics," Stephens
said. "It was actually the deputies that advanced his candidacy, because
they were loyal to him."
Cresap, a Democrat, lives in Poydras with his wife. He was re-elected
without opposition in 2002 and 2009. His annual base salary, set by the
Legislature for district judges across the state, is about $106,300.
Fight over fortune
Perhaps his most enduring legacy came during the protracted legal fight over
the Meraux family's vast fortune earlier this decade. Cresap presided over
the case of Arlene Meraux, the lone heiress to countless real estate
holdings in St. Bernard Parish and the French Quarter left by Joseph Meraux,
a philanthropist and collector of ornamental furniture and antique clocks.
Meraux was the son of legendary St. Bernard Sheriff Louis "Doc" Meraux, a
rumored bootlegger whose political power allowed him to gain control of much
of the area's undeveloped land.
Among Cresap's key rulings in that case was a decision to declare the
elderly Arlene Meraux, then in her 80s, unfit to handle her personal affairs
in August 2002. The order tightly restricted who could visit Meraux and left
day-to-day care in the hands of her niece, Rita Gue, who had moved to
Louisiana from Michigan with her husband, Floyd, less than two years before
to live with Meraux.
That decision came after Meraux had been in Illinois weeks earlier visiting
her daughter, Cheryl Cannella. While in Illinois, Cannella had taken her
mother to see a lawyer to rescind Rita Gue's power of attorney.
Cresap issued a subpoena requiring Arlene Meraux to be returned to Louisiana
for a medical examination that led to her personal affairs being taken over
by Gue. Cresap later appointed lawyer Sal Gutierrez, a longtime legal
adviser to Sheriff Jack Stephens and a contributor to Cresap's campaign, as
curator of her business affairs.
Even before Meraux died in late 2003, Gue and Gutierrez feuded in court over
a charitable foundation that controlled Meraux's assets, with Gutierrez
trying to have the Gues removed from the board and have himself and Stephens
appointed to the board.
Eventually a deal was brokered, and a five-member board was appointed that
included Gutierrez, Stephens, and local lawyer Sidney Torres III, as well as
Floyd and Rita Gue.
Cresap later ruled that the Meraux money could be used to pay legal fees for
the court case. The amount spent was never made public.
According to tax documents filed for 2007, all of the board members except
Stephens receive annual compensation from the foundation. Floyd and Rita
Gue, Gutierrez and Torres each received $120,000 in 2007.
In 2007, board members' compensation totaled $480,000, while charitable
donations totaled $327,000. Charitable donations from the foundation include
$171,000 donated to a college scholarship fund for St. Bernard graduates,
$45,000 donated to the Louisiana Children's Museum and $14,000 donated to
the St. Bernard School Board.
Suspended in 2006
In 2006, the state Supreme Court slapped Cresap with a 30-day suspension for
violating judicial conduct rules during a 2002 hearing on the state
Department of Natural Resources' request to remove a fellow St. Bernard
Parish judge from presiding at trial over oyster harvesters' claims that
wetlands restoration projects had destroyed their oyster beds.
The court ruled that Cresap failed to remain neutral and verbally abused a
Department of Natural Resources attorney, Andy Wilson, during the hearing,
in which Cresap ultimately denied the motion to remove Judge Manny Fernandez
from the case. At one point, Cresap told Wilson in open court that it was "a
shame that taxpayer money is used for this kind of charade and these kind of
antics," referring to Wilson's motion.
Cresap apologized to the Supreme Court and said he lost control of the
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