Arrogance and power make for a dangerous admixture. Throw in hubris and recklessness and you have the political/legal equivalent of nitroglycerine. That's essentially what U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt exposed in his 129-page ruling that gave five New Orleans cops a new trial in the Danziger Bridge case.
There are no winners here. Innocent civilians were gunned down by cops in the tumultuous days after Hurricane Katrina. The facts still support a conclusion that rogue cops covered up the killing of civilians, but who knows if the case will be retried?
The conviction of five cops after an intense trial — based largely on testimony from several other cops who cut deals for lesser charges in exchange for their testimony — was a high-water mark for then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.
Then it all came undone.
Turns out the feds — both the FBI and some federal prosecutors — use heavy-handed, coercive and even dishonest tactics to try to catch some of the heavy-handed, coercive, dishonest people they pursue. "Set a thief to catch a thief," says the old English proverb. We borrow many legal traditions from the Brits, but our justice system does not countenance prosecutorial misconduct on the scale described by Engelhardt.
The first crack in the feds' armor came when local landfill magnate Fred Heebe, who was a target of Letten's office at the time, outed Sal Perricone, a supervisor in Letten's office, as "HenryLMencken1951," a frequent and virulent commenter on nola.com. Perricone resigned in short order, but Heebe wasn't through.
Months later Team Heebe exposed Jan Mann, Letten's first assistant, as the online commenter "eweman." She took her time resigning, but ultimately did so, along with her husband and fellow federal prosecutor Jim Mann — but not until after Letten announced his retirement in December 2012. Engelhardt's ruling revealed that Letten knew about Mann's online comments, but the prosecutor parsed his words when discussing the scandal in court.
In the wake of the scandal, the Justice Department sent in a two-man cleanup crew — prosecutors Dana Boente from Virginia and John Horn from Georgia — but what we've seen so far has been largely a whitewash (surprise!). Boente was named interim U.S. Attorney and Horn was dispatched to investigate possible prosecutorial misconduct in connection with "leaks" that Engelhardt wanted exposed and punished.
Boente has mostly gone through the motions of nailing low-level crooks, though the office did indict former Mayor Ray Nagin on his watch. Horn's work remains shrouded in official secrecy (read: cover-up). I don't blame Horn for this; rumor has it his reports have been or are being sanitized inside the Beltway.
Meanwhile, Heebe got a total pass. Now, thanks mostly to Engelhardt's refusal to let this mess get swept under the rug, the cops who were convicted in the Danziger Bridge case are getting a new trial.
This is horrible news for the families of the civilians killed on the bridge. It also sucks for the rest of us, who don't want to see bad cops, crooked politicians and other sleazeballs get off because the feds can't behave like professionals.
At this point, a lot is up in the air. The Justice Department has to decide whether, and how far, to push back. Does it appeal Engelhardt's ruling? If so, what else might come out? If it retries the cops, how strong will the case be this go-round? (Engelhardt's ruling cites "shockingly coercive tactics" by the feds in addition to the juvenile online rants.)
And what about other cases, notably Nagin's? He already has asked for a delay in his Oct. 9 trial. I'm no fan of the former mayor, but in light of what Engelhardt has exposed, Nagin's request seems reasonable. I also agree with legal experts who say that any potential problems in Nagin's case should be relatively easy to address during jury selection, so he shouldn't go popping any corks just yet.
The larger question is what consequences, if any, will Perricone, Mann, Letten and others at DOJ face — and will new U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite make any difference?
Hopefully, our federal judges will continue demanding answers from a Justice Department that seems hell bent on covering up a penchant for overreaching.