Whenever U.S. Attorney Jim Letten holds a press conference announcing the indictment of yet another local politician, it can make one wonder if there's an honest public official left hereabouts. There's at least one. His name is Letten, and though it's easy to become discouraged at the scope of corruption his office uncovers, the work of this native New Orleanian should give us all hope for a less corrupt Louisiana. Letten, his team of attorneys and the New Orleans branch of the FBI typically build such strong cases against political scoundrels that they have little choice but to fess up. Moreover, Letten pursues corruption with no regard for race, position or political party. Consider a few of the rascals Letten recently has brought to justice.
The scandalized Housing Authority of New Orleans, which operates the city's public housing program, hired Elias Castellanos in 2006 to oversee the agency's finances. He did more than just manage the troubled agency's money; in just three years, he put almost a million dollars of it in his own pockets. In August, Letten brought embezzlement charges against Castellanos. A month later, Castellanos pleaded guilty.
Former Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price evidently thought it was perfectly reasonable to accept five annual golf trips to Pebble Beach, Calif., costing more than $45,000, from a developer who did business with the city. With that kind of logic, it almost makes sense that Price also would think it was OK to pay his golf gambling debts and other expenses with campaign funds. Letten, along with David Welker, special agent in charge of the FBI's New Orleans branch, and IRS special agent Michael DePalma, charged Price with tax evasion and defrauding Mandeville residents of his honest services. Price quickly admitted his guilt.
Bill Hubbard, the former president of St. John the Baptist Parish, solicited $20,000 in bribes from parish contractors for the benefit of his girlfriend, but he attempted to explain his crime as a good deed gone bad. After Letten filed charges against him, Hubbard, who is married with two children, told the press he had used the money to buy a car for a woman down on her luck. When he showed up in court the next day to make his guilty plea, Hubbard wouldn't formally admit to having a sexual relationship with the woman.
Don't mess with Letten. Even if a criminal agrees to save the courts and the federal prosecutor the time and expense of a trial by pleading out, it doesn't mean Letten is willing to go along with a lie. He insisted that Hubbard sign a "factual basis" that admitted his extramarital affair. "Basically, we couldn't stand by, watch him lie and be a party to that," Letten told reporters after Hubbard's guilty plea.
More recently, Letten's office convicted Mose Jefferson, brother of disgraced former Congressman Bill Jefferson, who himself received a 13-year sentence for political corruption after a trial in northern Virginia. Early next year, Mose Jefferson and his sister, New Orleans Assessor Betty Jefferson, will stand trial with former New Orleans City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt on racketeering and corruption charges. Just a few weeks ago, Letten brought a 63-count indictment against Greg Meffert, the city's former technology chief, his wife and a former business associate in a gloves-off press conference that left fed-up locals cheering and a cold wind blowing through New Orleans City Hall — a wind that has not, by all appearances, begun to subside.
Letten's even-handed approach to cutting out the cancer of corruption has earned him bipartisan support. Though a Republican who was first appointed by then-president George W. Bush, Letten was recommended for reappointment by Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. We hope President Barack Obama will quickly send his name to the Senate for confirmation.
Frustration is an understandable response to the sleaze that too often defines Louisiana politics. But, thanks to Letten's efforts, fewer and fewer crooks can expect to fleece the public and get away with it. Cutting out corruption is a painstaking process, and it never happens quickly enough, but Jim Letten wields a sharp scalpel — and his steady hand is just what the doctor ordered.