The legacy of Jim Letten

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Today’s resignation of Jim Letten, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, ended one of the most storied careers in the Louisiana justice system. Letten came to prominence as a federal prosecutor in two high-profile cases — the racketeering conviction of former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards and the tax fraud conviction of former state Rep. David Duke. Each case had the added bonus of prohibiting the defendant from seeking office again in Louisiana. For that alone, the public owes Jim Letten a debt of gratitude.

A Republican, Letten first assumed the U.S. Attorney’s job on an interim basis in 2001. He was officially appointed in 2005 by then-President George W. Bush and then reappointed in 2009 by President Barack Obama. His reappointment had the bipartisan backing of U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, who don’t agree on much. At the time of his resignation, Letten was the longest-serving U.S. attorney in the country.

The public liked him, too. Letten developed a reputation for putting justice above partisan concerns. His prosecutions cut across lines of race, class, geography, political party and power. Crooked politicians of both parties found themselves on Letten’s hook just as surely as did drug dealers, fraudulent contractors and tax cheats.

He successfully prosecuted dozens of high-profile cases, including the Jefferson family political dynasty, former Orleans Parish School Board president Ellenese Brooks-Simms, former Jefferson Parish Judges Alan Green and Ronald Bodenheimer, former St. Bernard Parish Judge Wayne Cresap, former St. John Parish President Bill Hubbard, former Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price, former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard (and several associates), and former New Orleans City Council members Oliver Thomas, Jon Johnson and Renee Gill Pratt. Soon to come, it was clear as of last week, is former Mayor Ray Nagin.

That one, apparently, will fall to his interim successor, Dana Boente, who until last week served as the top assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Letten gave no specific reasons for his decision, but it was clear that recent scandals and controversies — all brought on by underlings — drove his decision. Sal Perricone, a veteran federal prosecutor in Letten's office, resigned in disgrace last March after admitting that he anonymously posted hundreds of acerbic and inappropriate comments on NOLA.com, the online arm of The Times-Picayune. Posting as “HenryLMencken1951” and other aliases, Perricone freely discussed matters relating to ongoing federal cases in a brazen flouting of Department of Justice rules as well as the rules of professionalism for attorneys.

Perricone’s online rants came to light after Fred Heebe, owner of the River Birch landfill — and a target of the feds — filed a discovery motion as a precursor to a defamation suit alleging Perricone and “Mencken” were the same person. Perricone ’fessed up and resigned within a week. That was a serious blow to Letten’s office, but he assured the public that Perricone acted alone.

Now we know better. In October, Heebe filed a second lawsuit alleging similar charges against First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann, Letten’s top assistant, alleging that she posted online as “eweman.” This accusation seemed to poleaxe Letten even more than Perricone’s admission. Letten demoted Mann without acknowledging her guilt until last week, when, in a court filing, he admitted that Mann, too, had been posting on NOLA.com.

Letten has maintained throughout that he wasn’t aware at the time of Perricone and Mann’s online comments, and as of last week no one had produced evidence to the contrary. Even as he blasted the conduct of Letten’s office in late November, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt wrote: “Indeed, the record contains no evidence that … U.S. Attorney Jim Letten was aware of the public postings of Perricone and/or First AUSA Mann until such time the Heebe petitions were filed against each.”

Even so, by then both Landrieu and Vitter were backing away from support of the embattled prosecutor, and the writing was on the wall. In his farewell statement, Letten said, “New Orleans and this region — and state — are places of which our citizens can be truly proud. We must never give up the fight that we have carried to our streets, our neighborhoods, our schools and our institutions, to ensure public safety and transparent, accountable, honest and efficient government.”

Jim Letten did just that for many years. His legacy may have been tarnished by unscrupulous lieutenants, but it also has been burnished by a string of convictions that, we hope, will turn the tide in Louisiana’s never-ending fight against public corruption.

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