It’s a controversy which has been going on for some time now, but a stalemate between Louisiana’s two senators over Jim Letten’s future as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana is beginning to get some traction in the local media.
Letten, who was elevated to his current position in 2001 after having served as a prosecutor in the New Orleans-based Eastern District since 1990, has become a wildly popular figure in the Crescent City – New Orleans Gambit Magazine named him New Orleanian of the Year for 2009 – for his efforts at cleaning up the rampant corruption among local politicians, among other things. Since his ascension to his current job in 2001 (prior to that he had achieved a degree of notoriety for having tried the case which put former governor Edwin Edwards in the pokey), Letten’s office has prosecuted some 230 individuals on public corruption charges and another 150 on post-Katrina fraud beefs, in addition to the standard work a U.S. Attorney does. Among some of the former rock band drummer’s notable trophies are (per Gambit’s piece on Letten last week):
• Mose Jefferson, brother of former Congressman Bill Jefferson, was convicted on four of seven felony counts in August, including bribery and obstruction of justice. (Earlier that same month, the congressman was convicted of racketeering and 10 other felonies in an unrelated case in Virginia.)
• In a separate case, Mose Jefferson, Assessor Betty Jefferson, former City Councilwoman Renee Gill-Pratt, and Betty Jefferson’s daughter Angela Coleman were charged last month in a second superseding indictment with conspiracy to violate RICO, mail fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and aggravated identity theft in connection with the alleged skimming of public funds from nonprofits they operated. They are scheduled to stand trial later this month.
• Former city technology boss Greg Meffert, his wife Linda and former Meffert partner Mark St. Pierre were charged in November in a 63-count indictment for conspiracy, wire fraud, bribery, money laundering and other charges. The case stems from City Hall’s crime camera debacle. The City Hall investigation is “ongoing,” Letten says.
• Former state Sen. Derrick Shepherd of Marrero pleaded guilty in October to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Shepherd initially faced more charges, but copped a plea and is rumored to be cooperating with the feds. His sentencing has been postponed several times.
• Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price pleaded guilty to tax evasion and defrauding citizens of his honest services in October, and immediately resigned from office.
• St. John the Baptist Parish President Bill Hubbard pleaded guilty in September to conspiracy to solicit and receive bribes after shaking down contractors to pay for a car for his girlfriend.
• Gretna City Councilman Jonathan Bolar faces 18 felony charges, including extortion, wire fraud, failure to file income tax returns and structuring financial transactions to evade federal reporting requirements. His trial is set for Jan. 11.
• St. Bernard Parish District Judge Wayne Cresap and two attorneys pleaded guilty in October to a bribery scheme.
• Longtime Sewerage and Water Board member Ben Edwards Sr. was charged last month with 33 felony counts, including conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion, money laundering and tax evasion. In the same case and on the same day, Edwards’ brother Bruce Edwards Sr. pleaded guilty to wire fraud and tax evasion, and Oliver “O.C.” Coleman pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony (wire fraud). Both are expected to testify against Ben Edwards Sr., who was a major supporter of Mayor Ray Nagin’s re-election effort in 2006.
• Former state Film Commission executive Mark Smith pleaded guilty in July to conspiracy and bribery charges and was sentenced to two years in jail plus a fine of $67,500. In the same case, attorney and film producer Malcolm Petal and attorney William Bradley also pleaded guilty; both received jail time and fines, and Petal was ordered to pay more than $1.3 million in restitution.
• Former Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) official Dwayne Muhammad pleaded guilty last month to stealing funds from a Section 8 voucher program.
• Elias Castellanos, the former chief financial officer of HANO, pleaded guilty in September to stealing $900,000 from HANO.
• Four men working on the I-10 widening project in Jefferson Parish pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to bribe a state official. Convicted were Jeff Bentley, a state employee and project manager on the I-10 project; Albert “Buddy” Andre and Jason Guy, both former employees of the prime contractor; and Harry Labiche Jr., a plumbing subcontractor.
Those skins on the wall don’t include the latest exploits of Letten’s office, as a probe into corruption in Jefferson Parish’s government has forced the resignation of chief administrative officer Tim Whitmer and, subsequently on Friday, Parish President Aaron Broussard. Whether either will go to trial is uncertain to date, but without the investigation Letten initiated it’s doubtful anything would ever have been done about the sleaze being perpetrated in Broussard’s fiefdom.
The efforts at cleaning up the rampant corruption in government in the New Orleans area make Letten possibly the most important public official in the state of Louisiana. He enjoys wide popularity on both sides of the political aisle and if he wants a political future beyond his current job he’s a virtual lock for it.
As such, one of the common assumptions when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 was that Letten would need to figure out what he’d like to run for or at least what his next job would be – because since so many of his victims have been Democrat officeholders (he’s nailed Republicans, too) it was expected his removal would be a priority for the new president. Letten’s popularity, however, has made that impossible.
So Letten remains in his job. But he hasn’t been officially re-appointed by Obama; he’s just there for the time being and as soon as somebody else is appointed as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, he rides off into the sunset.
That’s not good enough for David Vitter, the state’s Republican U.S. Senator. Vitter wants assurances that not only will Letten have his job for the time being, but that he gets some assurances he can stick around. After all, everyone knows Letten still has work to do down in New Orleans. And the idea he’s hanging on by a string gives the impression that one investigative effort too many at someone the administration likes – like ACORN’s squalid New Orleans headquarters, for example – would produce a new appointee.
Whether Mary Landrieu, Louisiana’s Democrat U.S. Senator, shares Vitter’s fondness for Letten is a question. She has, to her credit, stood behind his continued employment as U.S. Attorney. But Landrieu hasn’t demanded a full appointment for Letten; the furthest she’s gone is to seek clarification on his status from the administration, and that hasn’t produced much.
Meanwhile, Vitter has held up his “blue slip” – the official Senatorial approval for federal nominees – of two Democrats, one (Brian Jackson) for a federal judgeship in Baton Rouge and another (Genevieve Lynn May) for a U.S. Marshall post in New Orleans. Both were Landrieu’s recommendations. Vitter says he won’t budge until Letten gets an official re-appointment; he had previously said he wouldn’t hold up Democrat appointments unless Letten was retained, but the current state of things means Letten could be dumped the day after Obama/Landrieu’s people go into the other jobs. Vitter smells a threat of being rolled, and he’s holding firm to his position.
Another factor in this brewing fracas is that Landrieu held up her blue slip on the same judgeship in Baton Rouge when Middle District U.S. Attorney David Dugas was up for it during the previous administration.
Still, she’s now blasting Vitter for his intransigence.
“Sen. Vitter’s partisan antics will do nothing but hurt the people of Louisiana who need these positions filled,” Landrieu said.
…”All U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and do not need to be re-nominated by the president or re-confirmed by the Senate to continue their service.”
Landrieu seems to be in a difficult position with this one, which accounts for the rather shrill nature of her statements. She has to know that without the leverage Vitter has over the judicial and law-enforcement nominations process, the Obama administration and its attorney general Eric Holder could replace Letten at the drop of a hat. And should that happen it’s going to be seen as at least partly Landrieu’s fault. She’s been unable to get any kind of firm confirmation of Letten’s continued tenure from Obama or Holder, so she has nothing to bargain with Vitter for, and as a result she can’t deliver her people to the positions she’s promised them. Nor does she have a leg to stand on with respect to the unfilled judgeship in Baton Rouge hurting the people of the state since she did the exact same thing Vitter is doing now.
And getting rid of Letten, while it’s something Mary Landrieu says she doesn’t want to do, unquestionably has some cache’ among New Orleans Democrats. If not, one wonders where John Georges would have gotten the idea to make it an issue in the New Orleans mayor’s race. Admittedly, Georges is as loopy as he is rich, and he also drew snickering when he brought up the topic of a Democrat U.S. Attorney as an unfulfilled goal of the Landrieus, but if he didn’t think he could score points by throwing that bomb Georges wouldn’t have included that in his Friday evening rant in front of the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee.
Meanwhile, Letten goes on investigating and prosecuting crooks in New Orleans and winning the esteem of the locals. He probably can’t do anything to ACORN, which needs to be done, but since Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has taken up that standard the urgency of that issue is lessened.
In other words, what we’re seeing is checks and balances at work. While it’s not a perfect situation, things could be a lot worse.