Letten lesson: Even the best officials need ‘terrible scrutiny’

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Teddy Roosevelt aimed his elephant gun at elephants, not house flies.

Teddy Roosevelt aimed his elephant gun at elephants, not house flies.

News stories have talked up the “irony” of U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s resignation, which is effective today.

We’ve been reminded that in 2001 businessman Fred Heebe was the top candidate to replace then-interim U.S. Attorney Letten. But allegations of domestic abuse derailed Heebe’s candidacy, and Letten got the appointment. Then, in 2009, Letten’s office grew suspicious of Heebe’s River Birch landfill business after Heebe secured a 25-year mega-contract with Jefferson Parish. Shortly thereafter, Heebe became a federal target and many figured he’d become another of Letten’s high-profile takedowns.

The tables turned again in 2012 when Heebe decided to investigate the investigators. He filed lawsuits unmasking Letten’s top prosecutors as the authors of very unwise online comments about federal cases and other matters. Federal prosecutor Sal Perricone resigned in March after he was linked to the online handle “HenryL.Mencken1951.” Letten, who apparently believed First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann’s denials, maintained that Perricone was a lone wolf. But once Heebe’s legal team connected Mann to the “eweman” handle, the game was up. Betrayed by his lieutenant, Letten realized he had to go.

After all these permutations, can the Heebe-Letten saga get more ironic? Maybe! This is New Orleans, a tight-knit place where allegiances are always colliding. Lunch with a friend might also be a lunch with a future opponent. For example, take this Times-Picayune story from July 28, 2001:

President Bush has yet to appoint the next U.S. attorney for Louisiana’s Eastern District, but the office’s transition seemed well under way this week at a corner table in a dimly lighted Terrytown restaurant.

That’s where acting U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and the rumored top candidate to replace him, Jefferson Parish lawyer and businessman Fred Heebe, were having lunch Thursday. The occasion, they said, was social rather than an official transition meeting. Both said they have been friends for years.

I wasn’t aware that Letten and Heebe were friends back in the day. The story concluded with an unexpected(?) encounter:

Letten said he was sharing with Heebe some of the directives of the Bush administration, such as its emphasis on making urban areas safer.

During their lunch, Parish Councilman T.J. “Butch” Ward showed up for a separate engagement at the restaurant. Letten said he had heard of Ward but had never met him. Heebe, whose mother is married to Ward’s brother, introduced them.

“I have been following you,” the federal prosecutor told Ward.

The councilman’s eyes got big.

“I hope not too close,” Ward said, and then relaxed when Letten smiled.

Butch Ward’s brother, Jim, co-owns the River Birch landfill with Heebe, his stepson.

Letten’s decision to investigate his former friend Heebe—a wealthy businessman who could afford a robust defense team, not to mention a highly connected Republican donor—is a strong testament to Letten’s respect for the “sacred mission,” as he calls it, of the U.S. Attorney’s office. No doubt Letten would say he was just “following the facts.” But that’s what they all say. It’s rare for the “facts” to lead to a major player like Heebe. Heebe, it must be emphasized, has not been charged with any crime.

Over the years, media profiles of Letten have bordered on the hagiographic. He’s been portrayed as a “straight arrow,” a “boy scout,” and a leader of “modern-day Untouchables.” Times-Picayune columnist James Gill might have been Letten’s most prominent media skeptic, yet in 2008 he wrote a column premised on the idea that Letten was too “scrupulously fair” to criticize. Last week former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg described Letten as “the best public official we’ve probably had in this city in my lifetime”.

Depending on what’s uncovered by special investigations into the online commenting scandal, history might eventually concur with Rosenberg and judge Letten to be as good as advertised. But it’s not the media’s job to advertise for public servants. We should err on the critical side.

As Jeffrey wrote on his Library Chronicles blog, terribly powerful political offices should be subjected to terrible scrutiny. Letten’s term has not been without some overreaches. For example, in 2004 armed FBI agents used a battering ram to bust down the door to Jacques Morial’s French Quarter home. The brother of former Mayor Marc Morial was awakened at gunpoint.

The Gestapo-style intrusion yielded only a misdemeanor plea for not filing income taxes. The government said the extreme measures were necessary to prevent destruction of evidence, though they never disclosed exactly what was taken from Morial’s home. Morial’s attorney Pat Fanning said the tactics were like “swatting a fly with a sledgehammer.”

The Canal Street Madam case, which Perricone prosecuted, was another high-profile investigation that ended with a whimper. The madams were slapped on the wrist and few of the johns, which included many members of the city’s elite, were ever charged or named. As longtime defense attorney Buddy Lemann remarked, “It’s a waste of time and money to spend all these federal resources to investigate a couple of ladies of the night. To make a federal offense out of it is like using an elephant gun to kill a fly.”

Now, you don’t have to think Heebe (or Jacques Morial, or the Canal St. madam’s former landlord) is a choir boy to also recognize Heebe’s exposure of online shenanigans in the federal prosecutor’s office as a useful reminder about power. Media stories are inclined to follow the aim of the U.S. attorney’s “elephant gun,” and pay less attention to the one wielding the weapon.

Heebe exposed a crack in the woodwork. The question becomes, how much will that crack reveal?

Mann and Perricone’s online shenanigans were disturbingly excessive. And who’s to say others in their office weren’t also involved? But such behavior is puzzling. When you have an elephant gun, and the media’s cheering you on, why did they feel compelled to use their time to swat the “flies” buzzing in the nola.com comments boards? Why did they recklessly parade their inside knowledge? Why did they use (sometimes multiple) aliases to shape comment-board discussions, make ad hominem attacks, and gang up on those with differing viewpoints?

The whole affair bespeaks an unsettling lack of self-confidence, not to mention professionalism, on the part of our “untouchable” federal prosecutors.

Worst of all were Mann and Perricone’s evasions and attempts at damage control. Perricone said it was his “secret.” Actually, it wasn’t. One of his colleagues suspected he was writing online. Other anonymous commenters, such as “brlawyer” and “thetruthisit” suspected that his postings were the work of a federal prosecutor.  A user named “YellowPocahontas2” clearly had an offline friendship with him. Mann told a judge she was unfamiliar with the nola.com comment scene, yet she wrote numerous posts as “eweman” on the same threads as Perricone. It did maximum damage to the office and begged to be exposed well prior to Heebe’s lawsuit.

Letten apparently didn’t know about the years of online skullduggery, but he should have. And when he became aware of it, he apparently trusted his friends’ denials and went with his gut, instead of strictly following the facts.

But the greatest irony of all might be that, even if Letten was as good as his encomiums in the press, even if he was, overall,  the straightest arrow in New Orleans history, that doesn’t mean his office, or any other, is made of similar timber. Even if he was an excellent public servant, his downfall is a sharp reminder that we can’t count on excellence without oversight.

It’s crucial to remember that Letten’s term was an accident. He wasn’t the first choice. He performed his mission well. His comeuppance doesn’t mean the bad guys should be let off the hook; it simply means that no one—not even Letten, and certainly not his successor—should get to hold the elephant gun without “terrible scrutiny” on a non-stop basis.

Coming next: strange histories and speculation about the federal prosecutor’s office.

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