Politics and prosecutors: tortuous route to an all-powerful office

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Aspirants to the office of United States Attorney don’t openly campaign for it. That’s unseemly. Protocol dictates that they urge friends to lobby political party leaders on their behalf—governors, senators and representatives on down. The partisan bigwigs then narrow the list of aspiring candidates based on… what precisely? Loyalty? Patronage? Owed favors? We’ll never find out.

Be assured, though, that the eventual nominee will be touted as a capable and impartial servant of the law— whether or not these virtues were sought or detected.

The state leaders submit their list to the president who customarily selects a nominee from it. After FBI background checks and a review by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, if all goes well the lucky aspirant is appointed to a four-year term.

In other words, it’s a murky, high-stakes political dance on three very different levels: personal, state and national. The key determinations are made behind closed doors. To top it off, weird surprises occur; especially in the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Given the awesome legal firepower at the command of a U.S. attorney, this bizarre, partisan selection process urgently needs to be reformed and made more transparent. Until it is, I will feel free to speculate wildly (perhaps even recklessly) about this office, and invite readers to do the same in their comments.

I don’t have a blockbuster analytical “payoff” in this very long, history-drenched post. I tried, but the damn facts got in the way. So, the rest of this excursion into the recent past will mainly interest those who see precedent as the mother of what’s ahead. If this isn’t you, please click to another Lens story. For fellow political junkies, the gleanings below are snippets from Times-Picayune stories dating back to the train wreck that occurred the last time the White House, then in Republican hands, had a chance to appoint a new U.S. attorney.

The excerpts, while abundant, have been carefully chosen and contain information that will figure into future posts. Pay particular attention to the slate of candidates in the mix a dozen years ago, and who evaluated them? (Bold highlights are mine.)

The Fred Heebe candidacy

In 2001, the top candidate to succeed U.S. attorney Eddie Jordan was none other than businessman and lawyer Fred Heebe—today the target of a federal probe of Jefferson Parish’s River Birch Landfill contract. The conventional view is that Heebe’s candidacy was sunk by allegations of domestic abuse.

But perhaps it was more complicated than that. With the wisdom of hindsight, let’s scan the news clippings about the Heebe candidacy and see if alternative histories suggest themselves.

1/2/01: Observers say the candidates for Jordan’s replacement include three career prosecutors in his office, Walter Becker, Constantine Georges and Jan Maselli Mann; two state judges from Jefferson Parish, James Cannella and Martha Sassone; and three lawyers with strong Jefferson Parish connections, Jack Capella, Fred Heebe and Steve Wimberly.

The [Pres. Elect George W.] Bush team evaluating the options is small but influential, and at this early stage in the campaign, most members are playing it close to the vest.

At the center are those who headed Bush’s presidential campaign in Louisiana: Gov. Foster, Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell; New Orleans lawyer Donald Ensenat, an old friend of the president-elect; and Boysie Bollinger, a Lockport businessman.

Part of the uncertainty is that many of the people involved haven’t been through this before. The last time Republicans picked a U.S. attorney was when Bush’s father was president. Some of the people with the most power now weren’t active in national politics then, and some, including Foster and Tauzin, weren’t even Republicans.

Interpretation: Heebe has a lot of competition. He better get cracking. (Jan Mann’s recent dismissal as retiring U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s first assistant—following revelations that she indulged un inappropriate online commentary—is, of course, more than a decade away.)

T-P 1/20/01: Real estate developer Fred Heebe … has lined up 25 elected officials to send letters to President-elect George W. Bush’s staff in his bid to be appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

More than half the letters came from officials in St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, which have contracts to send their garbage to Heebe ‘s River Birch landfill in Waggaman.

Seems like a strong, early start for Heebe.

T-P 2/10/01: A crack in the public support for Fred Heebe as the next U.S. attorney in New Orleans emerged Friday when Donald Ensenat, President [George] Bush ‘s closest friend in Louisiana, said a spokeswoman for Gov. [Mike] Foster was wrong to put him in a group of prominent Republicans backing Heebe for the post.

Oops. Ensenat—Bush’s former Yale frat brother, Houston roommate, and a longtime supporter of Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush—isn’t necessarily on board. And he’s on the influential selection committee. That’s probably nothing to worry about. After all, Heebe still has a truckload of valuable business connections to politicians. Does he also enjoy familial links to officeholders, as well?

T-P 4/7/01: In a surprise announcement that rattled the uppermost echelon of Jefferson Parish government, top administrator B.K. Sneed is leaving public service after 20 years to take a job in the private sector.

Sneed, father of state Rep. Jennifer Sneed, R-Metairie, plans to begin working as a developer for Harvey-based Willow Inc. The company is run by Jim Ward, who is a brother of Parish Councilman T.J. “Butch” Ward and co-owner of River Birch Landfill with B.K. Sneed’s son-in-law, Fred Heebe … [Sneed’s] daughter’s recent marriage to Heebe has drawn attention … and makes Sneed the patriarch of one of the most politically connected families in the parish.

Sneed’s new boss, Jim Ward, is married to Heebe ‘s mother. And Heebe himself, a wealthy apartment developer and son of a retired federal judge, is on a short list of those being considered to fill the U.S. attorney’s job in New Orleans. Sneed’s wife, Lydia, is a sister of Doug Allen, former parish president and judge in the 24th District Court.

“They have been in the political mix a long time,” Parish Council Chairman Aaron Broussard said. “But they have always been in the mix with integrity and a good solid reputation.”

Fates preserve us! That family tree is all tangled up in business and politics. You almost need a flow chart to keep track of it all. Luckily, Broussard—who pleaded guilty in September 2012 to two counts of public corruption—was there to offer his broad seal of approval to the whole family!

T-P 4/16/01 State GOP leaders have been divided on a choice for a permanent replacement. Louisiana officials recently sent the White House a slate of candidates listing businessman Fred Heebe, Assistant U.S. Attorney Constantine Georges, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Shaun Clarke and former Jefferson Parish District Attorney Jack Capella—in that order of preference.

GOP leaders are “divided.” Georges enjoys early support from Bollinger, who is in business with Georges’ brother John (a future gubernatorial and mayoral candidate). Foster and Terrell support Heebe. Ensenat is playing it close to the vest.

Then, twelve days later:

T-P 4/28/01: Politicos said Heebe met Thursday with Justice Department officials, part of the intensive background check to screen Heebe for the position. Supporters said Heebe currently is the only candidate being interviewed for the job.

“He’s the only one that they’re meeting with,” said Councilman T.J. “Butch” Ward, who spoke with Heebe on Friday. Ward’s brother, Jim, is married to Heebe ‘s mother.

“Fred said everything went fine. He was real pleased with it,” Ward said.

That was quick. What exactly has happened? The “divisions” have been resolved? A large field of candidates, winnowed down to a short list, has suddenly been distilled to a single candidate? Heebe looks golden. No one else is being interviewed. The background check has begun.

Then, exactly three months later, Heebe breaks bread with interim U.S. Attorney Jim Letten; the office’s unofficial transition seems to be under way.

But three more months pass before President Bush finally announces, on Nov. 1, 2001, that he intends to nominate Heebe. Intends. Then four more months pass, and Bush still has not completed a formal nomination. Meanwhile…

T-P 2/1/02: The controversy over appointing a U.S. attorney in New Orleans escalated Thursday when Fred Heebe denied physically or mentally abusing ex-wife Nanci Easterling or former girlfriend Gina Herbert, while his attorney and his stepfather blamed one-time casino owner Robert Guidry and others for conspiring to derail Heebe ‘s bid for the post.

With his wife at his side, a visibly shaken Heebe called the domestic violence claims levied by the two women “outrageous lies.”

“I received the nomination only after extensive FBI background checks,” Heebe said at a news conference at his Old Metairie home. “I am confident the FBI will determine the truth and I will be confirmed, and that determination will not be made by some people who may not be served well by an independent U.S. attorney.”

Heebe ‘s stepfather, Jim Ward, speaking from his stepson’s back yard, said he thinks Guidry and other “criminals and thugs” paid Herbert to levy the claims of abuse.

“Just look at the PR firm handling the [accuser’s] charges: It’s Allan Katz and his partner,” Ward said. “This is the same firm employed by Robert Guidry. That’s more than a coincidence.”

Gov. Foster also suggested in a radio address that reporters should look into the public relations firm representing Herbert and Easterling, Foster spokesman Steven Johnson said.

“He thinks there may be a larger story,” Johnson said.

First off, there ought to be a law against “criminals and thugs” interfering with U.S. Attorney appointments. That’s outrageous and appalling. I want to be clearly on record against it.

Second, though the claims against Heebe are serious, there are also questions about the accusers. The PR firm’s link to Guidry—a tugboat magnate and one-time owner of the Treasure Chest casino in Kenner who, as the government’s star witness, copped a guilty plea and testified to bribing former Gov. Edwin Edwards—is suspicious. Some believe that Guidry, a political rival of Heebe’s, fears that Heebe will use the awesome power of the U.S. Attorney’s office to investigate him.

As we’ll see below, it’s perhaps noteworthy that Heebe in defending himself repeatedly cites his FBI background check. Nonetheless, a month later, despite unwavering support from his backers, despite the apparent conspiracy he said he’d fight, and despite the seemingly questionable claims of abuse, Heebe gives up his 15-month quest to become U.S. Attorney and withdraws on March 1, 2002.

T-P 3/2/02: A statement from the White House said Bush “continues to believe that Mr. Heebe would serve capably,” avoiding any mention of the allegations that enveloped Heebe.

Without providing a reason, the White House had refused to send Heebe’s FBI background check to the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, essentially stalling his nomination.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay, one of Heebe ’s chief political backers, said there was nothing in the FBI report that would have prevented Heebe’s appointment. Tauzin and Gov. Foster began stepping up the pressure this week for the White House to act.

On Tuesday, Foster and Tauzin urged top White House officials to either move the Heebe nomination or withdraw it. They were told something would happen within 48 hours.

Apparently, the Bush administration is slow-rolling the background check. Tauzin says it’s clean and goes to the White House to make the case for the embattled Heebe. Check out this sequence:

On Thursday, Tauzin called White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card for an update and, according to Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson, was told no decision had been made. Johnson said that when Tauzin threatened to call the president directly, a meeting was hastily arranged with Vice President Dick Cheney.

The Thursday evening meeting with Cheney failed to settle the matter, according to Johnson, and when Tauzin called the nominee, Heebe said: “I’ve had it. It’s over.”

Johnson called the attacks against Heebe a “well-orchestrated political assassination.”

“We have a good idea who most of the ringleaders were, and they need to remember that what goes around comes around,” Johnson said. He declined to name names. “We’ll deal with them in our own way. We’re pretty good at playing hardball politics, too.”

Why couldn’t a Louisiana Republican like Tauzin get a straight answer from Cheney in a closed-door meeting? And why have Tauzin and other Heebe supporters attempted to resuscitate Heebe’s candidacy, a process that will be extended all the way into 2003? Only then will Gov. Foster give up and declare that he’s “very OK” with Letten after all.

It’s odd.

A 2007 New York Times story may shed light on the episode. It claimed emails from Karl Rove, Bush’s political guru, showed that Rove initially supported Heebe’s nomination but “backed off” after the abuse accusations. Rove probably disliked the potential “optics” of Heebe’s former romantic partners accusing him of abuse in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Perhaps Bush slow-rolled Heebe’s FBI check to the Democrats to send a message to Louisiana Republicans. And either they were too thick to get the hint and encourage Heebe to withdraw, or perhaps they thought Heebe deserved a straight answer from the top.

Maybe.

I favor a slightly different interpretation of all the temporizing and backstabbing. There was a lot going on in the second half of 2001—Sept. 11, anyone? But the Bush administration seems to have begun dragging its feet on the Heebe nomination well before the abuse claims began circulating that winter. I’m inclined to think that Bush was uncomfortable with the nomination all along—perhaps not with Heebe’s background check, per se, (though I wonder about that, too), but with Heebe’s supporters.

Perhaps it’s significant that Ensenat, Bush’s closest friend in Louisiana, made a point of saying early on that he was not a Heebe supporter. I see it as an early signal that all was not going well for Heebe. Ditto for the White House decision to put the whole process in slow motion.

Who knows, maybe the Bush team liked the seemingly “apolitical” Jim Letten, and were hoping Letten would “work himself into the job”—which he apparently did. (After Heebe withdrew, there was little talk of the other short-listed candidates as an alternative to Letten.)

Maybe Bush didn’t give a fig about the preference (for Heebe) expressed by Louisiana officials and took some notes from how his father, former Pres. George H.W. Bush, handled things more than a decade earlier.

Volz coda

Earlier we fleshed out an alternate history of John Volz’s appointment to U.S. Attorney in 1978. It might be illuminating to review the surprising end to his career.

The official story is that Pres. George H.W. Bush’s administration suddenly decided that no U.S. Attorney should serve more than two terms. But they didn’t officially inform Louisiana Republicans until mid-July, 1990. Two months earlier, however, with Volz still in office, the Bush administration sought out and interviewed attorney Harry Rosenberg as a replacement for Volz. A T-P article that year said Rosenberg “attracted the attention of the White House through his unpaid work as chief attorney for the host committee in New Orleans during the Republican National Convention in August 1988.”

Like Heebe, Volz had the support of nearly every GOP official in the state (save U.S. Rep. Richard Baker) and they strenuously objected to Bush’s new two-term policy and rallied to keep Volz. However, the first Bush White House wouldn’t budge. Volz was out, and Harry Rosenberg was in. No short lists, no bottom up processes (however murky). Poppy Bush was content to go against the entire state GOP, and replace Volz with a candidate he secretly lined up in advance.

Remember, the Volz nomination in 1978 had been a surprise. His name came out of nowhere after lawyer George Reese withdrew amid mysterious allegations of “hard living.” Volz went on to become one of the longest-serving U.S. Attorneys, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Rosenberg, his replacement, was a surprise as well. There were no short lists or foot-dragging with that announcement. The Heebe saga is believed to be a hometown political assassination, but I think there’s evidence of mysterious top-level resistance in the White House. Letten, as we know, went on to serve over a decade in the office (like Volz); and now Heebe is a federal target.

Perhaps Bush II took a tip from his dad and wanted to nominate a less “political” pick. Maybe he thought he was doing Louisiana a favor by discouraging the consensus choice of the party poobahs and allowing a relative unknown the chance to work his way into the job.

Again, we’ll never know. The process of selecting new U.S. attorneys is so backroom and political, it invites speculation—perhaps even wild speculation of the type your correspondent sometimes indulges in.

After his resignation, Rosenberg called Letten “probably the best public official in this city in my lifetime.” I bet both Bush junior and Bush senior would be inclined to agree.

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