After attorneys' fees were paid (undisclosed), the board began distributing the remaining Meraux proceeds between its own salaries and charitable donations, which in 2007 were $480,000 and $327,000, respectively.
-- The Times-Picayune

Target of probe took on tough cases; But judge avoids fray in St. Bernard
May 3, 2009

A one-time 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 eccentricities.

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 fortune.

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 Supreme Court.

"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."

Parish abuzz

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 unsuccessful.

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 himself.

Cresap has not worked since April 10, when he took a leave for medical reasons. The district's other judges are handling his caseload.

Uptown upbringing

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. Bernard.

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 hearing.

Copyright 2009, The Times-Picayune Publishing Corporation

From: Chris Kirkham, "Target of probe took on tough cases; But judge avoids fray in St. Bernard," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, May 3, 2009, National, p. 1.  Kirkham can be reached at  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.