Heavy tolls

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This week saw several bombshells in the local political arena: a Baton Rouge judge nullified the results of last November’s bridge toll referendum, and the feds dropped their years-long investigation into the River Birch landfill and its co-owners, Fred Heebe Jr. and Jim Ward. In a sense, both stories were about tolls.

Let’s take the easy part first.

No matter how you voted last November, there’s no denying the logic of Judge William Morvant’s decision to void the toll referendum’s outcome. The facts are undisputed — indeed, the state didn’t even put on a case in support of the results — and the law is clear.

At least 1,000 voters in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes were given “provisional” ballots that allowed them to vote only in the presidential election. Dozens of local items were on the ballot that day, including the tolls, but provisional voters could not vote in those contests. Many provisional voters were legally registered, but for some reason their names were not on the Election Day rolls. Registrars need to fix that.

Morvant correctly cited state law, which says if it’s impossible to determine the result of an election because qualified voters were denied the right to vote, a judge may nullify that election. Morvant ordered a new referendum on May 4, which happens to be the second weekend of Jazz Fest.

Suffice it to say the turnout on May 4 will be radically different than that of last Nov. 6, and that means toll supporters have an uphill fight. In politics, the easiest thing to do is kill a tax — and many see the bridge toll as a tax. Last November, toll supporters could count on the presidential election to push turnout, but on May 4 they’ll have to drag folks to the polls. They’ll raise fears of bad maintenance, less grass cutting, lights going out on the bridge and the like, but toll opponents have more motivation to turn out: they’re pissed off and they smell blood.

Which brings us to our next topic: the end of the federal River Birch investigation. The immediate reaction in many quarters was that the lengthy probe was a waste of time because it came to naught. That’s not entirely true. While the feds didn’t nab Heebe, the landfill owner bagged a passel of errant federal prosecutors by exposing Sal Perricone and Jan Mann for unprofessional, unethical and possibly illegal actions in connection with their acerbic — and petulant — online commentaries.

Perricone and Mann resigned as a result of the exposé, as did Mann’s husband (and fellow prosecutor) Jim Mann. The scandal ultimately forced popular U.S. Attorney Jim Letten to step down as well, though he was not personally accused of wrongdoing. Letten did allow a culture of hubris to take hold in the office, and his trust in Perricone and the Manns was misplaced, but that’s hindsight.

What makes this story so compelling is that fact that, for once, the quarry successfully turned the tables on the hunters. I don’t hear any chorus of cheers for Heebe, but I also don’t hear anyone sobbing for Perricone or the Manns.

So, is the River Birch saga over?

I hope not. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) still has a duty to get to the bottom of the online commenting scandal. The DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) is supposedly investigating, but veteran defense attorneys all say that’s going to be a whitewash. Let’s hope they’re wrong.

A lot depends on whether veteran federal prosecutor John Horn, who was brought in from Georgia to reopen Jan Mann’s now-tainted investigation into official leaks (she denied anyone was commenting online other than Perricone), gets to the bottom of the online commenting scandal. Unlike OPR, which reports to the DOJ brass in Washington, Horn was sent here as a result of a scathing opinion by District Judge Kurt Englehardt, who all but ordered an independent investigation. If Horn tries to gloss over the problem, he may find himself alongside Jan Mann in front of an angry federal judge.

At the end of the day, some folks currently or previously at DOJ could be paying a much heavier toll than West Bank commuters.

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