It’s transition time at the local U.S. attorney’s office, now that Jim Letten, the nation’s longest-serving federal prosecutor, and his top three lieutenants have retired in the wake of a scandal involving anonymous online comments.
No doubt candidates aspiring to replace Letten have quietly expressed interest to U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, the state’s top Democrat. Landrieu has promised an “open and efficient” selection process as she whittles down a list of names to send to President Obama for approval.
But if history is any guide, the process will be murky rather than transparent. Without explanation, candidate names might inexplicably surface … or sink. Precisely why is anyone’s guess, because the reported “explanations” about this covert jockeying never seem to add up. It’s enough to make one suspect that the real story about U.S. attorney appointments takes place behind closed doors, or in dimly-lit restaurants.
So I declare open season. Parse the news for signs of political intrigue. Keep an eye out for Machiavellian maneuvers and loaded words. Take the clues and rumors over to a friend’s house and speculate wildly over enhanced eggnog. But whatever you do, sheathe Occam’s razor. When it comes to politics and U.S. attorney appointments, simple explanations are for chumps. Oftentimes the truth is stranger than the rumor.
Last week a remarkable interview aired during The Jim Engster Show on WRKF, a Baton Rouge radio station. Engster’s guest was Vincent Bruno, the current treasurer of Jefferson Parish’s Republican Party. They discussed the scandal in the federal prosecutor’s office and agreed that some of Letten’s top assistants deserved criminal indictment rather than “administrative” punishment for online comments apparently referring to federal investigations. Then Engster asked about Bruno’s uncle, Carlos Marcello, the legendary Mafia mob boss. The treasurer mostly defended Marcello, acknowledging his power but insisting that it was wielded nonviolently.
Then, this fascinating exchange took place:
Jim Engster: Now… the late [former U.S. Attorney] John Volz, he got a conviction on Carlos Marcello and Charles Roemer, the commissioner of administration for Edwin Edwards. That conviction was later overturned but they both went to prison. What do you recall about that?
Treasurer of Jefferson Parish GOP: Well, I recall Sam Cariola, an organized crime figure from Buffalo, coming down to meet me and [saying] he would introduce me to the next U.S Attorney from New Orleans. And I said, “Oh, George Reese? George Reese will be here?” And he said, “No, John Volz.” And I’m going, “How do you from Buffalo know that John Volz will be the next U.S. Attorney here in New Orleans when everybody including … Senator J. Bennett Johnston, say it’s gonna be George Reese?”
And [Cariola] said, “… Listen to an old man. John Volz will be your next U.S. Attorney.” He said, “He’ll be here in a few minutes. Would you like to meet him?” And I said, yeah, and sure enough, a month or two later John Volz was appointed. We don’t have enough time on this show, but that’s what the federal investigation got into, how [Volz] was appointed, and it was done through organized crime figures, out of Buffalo, who are not nice people like they are down here.”
Engster didn’t follow up on any of that. But I’ll unpack it. Better pour yourself another glass of nog.
Bruno is an intriguing player in recent Louisiana political history. A former New Orleans Police officer, former president of the Police Association of New Orleans (1975-80), former longtime member of the Republican State Central Committee, he was also “spiritual adviser” to David Duke, during one of the ex-Klansman’s political campaigns in the early ’90’s. Bruno says he “recently retired” from a position in the governor’s Office of Homeland Security.
In his younger days Bruno says he “idolized” Marcello. He grew close to the mobster, in part to use Marcello’s influence to “solve problems for the police department.” He describes Marcello as a man who did good things for people, and who frequently advised Bruno to stay on the straight and narrow so he didn’t “end up like him.”
Bruno says a personal encounter with God changed his life, and he rededicated himself to principles higher than cut-throat party politics. Nonetheless, Bruno has not shied away from telling ugly “truths,” as he calls them, about others in high political office.
For example, more than 10 years ago, Bruno was the first to go public with the claim that then U.S. Rep. David Vitter had consorted with prostitutes. Vitter responded by calling Bruno a “thug and a liar,” but then promptly apologized. Many considered Bruno’s claims to be vicious, baseless attacks—that is, until Vitter’s phone number was discovered on the D.C. Madam’s call logs in 2007.
So now Bruno claims he met with Cariola, a Buffalo AFL-CIO mafia figure who somehow had advance knowledge that Volz would be appointed. It was the summer of 1977, and lawyer George Reese’s name would be submitted to President Jimmy Carter by both Johnston and Louisiana’s other U.S. senator, Russell Long.
As the treasurer’s story goes, Volz and his wife joined Cariola and Bruno for dinner that evening. They didn’t talk about Cariola’s stunning prediction about Volz’s future. Instead, they talked about unionizing the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. They dined at the resplendent Elmwood Plantation Restaurant, which was owned and operated by the affable Joe Marcello, Carlos’ brother.
Though Reese had the support of Johnston and Long, some African-American officeholders in New Orleans opposed the nomination, because Reese was a former Republican. Other lawyers reportedly vying for the job included Assistant Louisiana Attorney General Kendall Vick and former assistant U.S. Attorney Julian Murray.
Then, all of a sudden, Reese had trouble with the background check. The FBI informed him that there were “allegations” that he drank and gambled, and once took out a loan from a mob-connected financial institution. The FBI wouldn’t reveal the source of the allegations, but a shocked Reese was forced to withdraw. Suddenly, Volz was being touted as the Carter administration’s preferred candidate. Reportedly, Carter’s chief of staff told Long and Johnston to get on board for Volz. Some believe that Cariola, through his lawyer John Condon, a big Carter supporter, sunk Reese and promoted Volz.
Bruno’s claims are not new. The details of his supposed meeting with Cariola and Volz and Volz’s subsequent appointment are rehashed by journalist R.E. Payne, in his self-published 1994 book, “Above the Law: the hidden career of John Volz, USA.” Volz called Payne’s work trash, said the FBI had debunked the claims, and sued Payne for libel.
Payne countersued and attempted to gain access to classified tapes of bugged conversations from the probe that led to the conviction of Marcello and Roemer, the so-called “Brilab”(short for “bribery and labor racketeering”) investigation.
Based on an FBI summary of the bugged conversations, which Payne had obtained from Bruno, Payne had reason to believe that there was an audio record of Carlos Marcello telling Cariola that Volz was part of his “clan.” Payne says the FBI summary of the Brilab surveillance was authenticated by attorney L. Eads Hogue, the former chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force in New Orleans during the Brilab investigation. Bruno, for his part, claims he was in the room with Marcello and Cariola and witnessed their conversation first-hand. However, Payne lost his suit and his request for the Brilab tapes was denied.
Skeptics of Bruno and Payne say they are highly biased because both were targeted by Volz at different times. In another self-published book titled “Falsely Accused,” Payne describes Bruno’s ordeal:
On Dec. 16, 1985, Bruno, reputed mobster Joseph “Junior” Provenzano, and two others were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to defraud an Alabama couple. The couple had allegedly paid $10,000 to Provenzano to fix the armed robbery state charge in Louisiana against their son, Carlton “Chip” Langford.
Bruno was acquitted on racketeering counts but convicted of two counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy.
Bruno claims that he’s the only man in Louisiana with a “federal expungement” on his record. (A judgment on his case can be read here.) In a statement written by Bruno that I obtained, he claims:
In 1986, I gave information to The Times-Picayune that then U.S. Attorney John Volz took a $25,000 payoff in the L.J. Munna case. Shortly thereafter, Pat Fanning, then a deputy U.S. attorney approached me and said that Volz was going to indict me so I would lose my credibility and no one would believe me. I indeed was indicted and convicted and sent to jail for a crime that I did not do. The feds had my attorney tape record me, and when they found that I was innocent, Mr. [Jim] Letten hid the tapes and prosecuted me anyway. Fortunately, I was contacted by an honest federal judge who put me in contact with the House Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee began an investigation and assigned F.B.I. Agent Bud Hall to investigate the case. After a lengthy investigation, my allegations were sustained. The Judiciary Committee forced Mr. Volz to resign. The information was also given to federal Judge Carr who ruled that a “total and complete miscarriage of justice had occurred.” My record was expunged and I was completely exonerated.
As for Payne, he too was targeted by Volz. The specifics get complicated, but Times-Picayune columnist James Gill distills the essential facts in his column published on Oct. 20, 1995:
Payne certainly has a legitimate beef against Volz, having suffered through a lengthy trial on charges that were manifestly groundless. Payne, a newspaper reporter and FBI snitch at the time of his arrest, stood trial with several others indicted for corruption at the Causeway Commission.
Everyone was found guilty except for Payne, which cannot have surprised anyone, since it was well established long before the trial that Payne had merely been following orders from the government and the charges should never have been pursued.
Is there any truth to any of these claims? Whom do you trust? Volz? Marcello’s born-again nephew who received a federal expungement and was years ahead on the Vitter/prostitute connection? An award-winning journalist who (stupidly) became an FBI informant and after his acquittal spent years detailing alleged corruption by Volz?
More importantly, why should we bother with it now? Why should we care?
Well, after reading Payne’s books and having met and spoken with Bruno about these matters at various times over the years, I think a few salient items are worth contemplating:
1. Payne and Bruno are not to be lumped in with Aaron Broussard, the Jefferson Parish president who pleaded guilty to public-corruption charges months ago, and who now is complaining about prosecutorial misconduct. Payne and Bruno steadfastly maintained their innocence, and were either acquitted or exonerated.
2. Over the years, I’ve carefully followed Bruno’s claims about Vitter and Volz, to see if his stories would “evolve” over time. They haven’t. Bruno has been impeccably consistent in both the details and sequence of his claims. The stories he told 10 years ago are indistinguishable from what he said in his radio interview with Engster. Clearly he has an agenda, but that doesn’t mean it’s an unjustified one. If Bruno is a total liar, which I doubt, then he’s one of the most disciplined liars I’ve ever seen. (And I’m a political junkie.)
3. Payne believes the “fawning media” didn’t adequately scrutinize Volz, while he wielded the elephant gun as U.S. attorney. It’s interesting that top prosecutors in Letten’s office savaged a Volz critic named “brlawyer” when he dared to write that Volz was “defined by his failures.” (A reference to Volz’s failed prosecutions of Gov. Edwin Edwards and District Attorney Harry Connick, among others.) It was online tag-team displays like these that helped River Birch landfill owner Fred Heebe’s legal team identify the assistant federal prosecutors behind the online shenanigans.
4. It’s ironic that those who opposed Reese’s candidacy for U.S. Attorney because he wasn’t a true Democrat, eventually got Volz instead, a man who would switch parties and become a Republican to keep his job after Ronald Reagan was elected president, and go on to prosecute numerous Democrats throughout the 1980’s. (Might this be a lesson about the boomerang effect of using the federal prosecutor’s office to target partisan opponents?)
5. It’s important to emphasize that Volz vigorously contested the claims in Payne’s books. I’d add another criticism. Payne doesn’t adequately answer why, if Volz was so “mobbed up,” he prosecuted Carlos Marcello. And if the Buffalo mob had got wind of Volz’s appointment early on, isn’t it possible that inquiries into Reese’s alleged financial entanglement with the mob was the tipoff that President Carter was going to have to move in a different direction? But now that both Marcello and Volz have passed on, I think another Freedom of Information Act request for the relevant Brilab tapes is in order. I’m sure Bruno wouldn’t object.
6. Payne’s observation about this element in the Reese saga, I think, is extremely telling:
Around New Orleans, I have asked many people familiar with the Reese debacle what they thought happened. A few thought the opposition from the black leaders played a major role in scuttling Reese, others thought it was the way it was reported: Reese was “unfit” and couldn’t survive Senate confirmation hearings.
But one thing everyone was surprised about—lawyers, judges, politicians: They had no inkling whatsoever that Volz was being considered until they read it in The Times-Picayune [on Nov. 24, 1977]. (“Above the Law,” pp. 72-73)
That’s extraordinarily interesting. Payne could find no mention in the newspapers of Volz candidacy until—suddenly!—he was touted as the frontrunner after the Reese debacle. What happened to the other candidates on the list? Why weren’t they considered. Precisely how did Volz displace all of them?
Beware of surprises like that one.
Next: strange histories and speculations about the Heebe “debacle” and Letten’s appointment.