Longtime New Orleans U.S. Attorney Jim Letten announced today that he is resigning amid an online commenting scandal that has called into question the integrity of prosecutors he oversees.
“The decision to resign my post as U.S. attorney was ultimately mine,” Letten said at a news conference this morning. His resignation is effective Dec. 11. Dana Boente, the First Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, will temporarily lead the New Orleans office after Letten’s departure, Attorney General Eric Holder announced.
Letten’s resignation puts a strange, abrupt end to his 28-year career as a federal prosecutor — capped by service for the last 11 years as the U.S. Attorney in New Orleans — during which he was lauded by politicians of both parties for his work. Letten oversaw the prosecutions of the Danizger Bridge police shooting case after Hurricane Katrina and a series of public corruption cases against Louisiana politicians.
“Although the decision was definitely not an easy one or taken lightly, it is, I believe, the best course of action under the circumstance, most of all for this office, this Department of Justice, for its people, for the people we serve in this community, so that this office can move forward and for me personally as well.”
News reports said some staff left Letten’s office this morning wiping tears from their eyes.
The nearly year-long scandal has already toppled two longtime Assistant U.S. Attorneys, including Letten’s longtime deputy. Earlier this year, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone was outed as a prolific and vitriolic online commenter at Nola.com, the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s website, posting frequently about ongoing federal cases, some of which he was involved in.
Perricone resigned in March after admitting to the conduct and Letten seemed to survive the scandal mostly unscathed, with local news reporting he would likely be retained for another Barack Obama term. But those hopes changed abruptly in November, when his No. 2 was also outed for similar conduct. Jan Mann, who has since been demoted from her First Assistant U.S. Attorney post, admitted to posting a series of comments on Nola.com about ongoing federal probes. The revelations came out in two defamation lawsuits lodged by an executive under federal investigation as part of a large-scale fraud probe.
Letten, who was born and raised in Louisiana, emphasized his roots in the community and said he will take his time off to decide what he will do next professionally.
“This is my home,” he said. “I was born here and my parents and their parents and their parents were born here. It is my intention to stay here and contribute.”
Letten remarked on the successes of his office, which has seen a region ravaged and attempt to recover following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
“Make no mistake about it: I stand here before you… with enormous, unabashed pride in everything we’ve accomplished and in the tremendous successes we’ve forged over the years,” he said. “New Orleans, this city, this region, this state, are all places of which all of our citizens… can be truly proud and prouder every single day because of the ground covered, victories we’ve forged and culture we’ve all together changed.”
In a statement, Holder called Letten a “valued partner, dedicated public servant and a good friend.”
“As the longest-serving U.S. Attorney in the country today, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the people of his district and the nation by working tirelessly to make their communities safer through reducing violent crime, fighting public corruption and protecting their civil rights,” Holder’s statement read. “…I am grateful for his service to the department over these many years.”
Just last week, Letten told law enforcement officials at a luncheon that his office was “fully engaged and moving forward,” his strongest statements about the scandal to date.
But it seemed clear that Letten’s days were numbered.
For one thing, he’s been in office too long. As a result, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) hasn’t been able to recommend her own Democratic candidate for the top office. Another sign came last month, when Landrieu and Republican Sen. David Vitter Louisiana both told the press they were troubled by the scandal in Letten’s office. Vitter had previously supported Letten’s continued service.
Letten became U.S. Attorney in 2001. He was only one of three President George W. Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney’s to be held over in the Obama administration. He began his career in the New Orleans District Attorney’s office before moving to the Department of Justice. He became known for the prosecution of former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards (D), who was convicted on racketeering charges in 2001. Letten is a 1979 graduate of Tulane University Law School.
“As I walk away from this position and this command is taken over and this office moves forward, my sacred promise to the citizens is, this office, this department and its partners will continue forward and the commitment will never ever waver,” Letten said in the news conference.
WDSU-TV reported that U.S. Attorney’s office employees were seen leaving with “tears in their eyes and stunned faces” after an early morning meeting.
This article has been updated with Letten’s remarks from his news conference.