Perhaps the beginning of the end for Jim Letten was his assertion of a “gospel truth” that turned out to be more murky.
The New Orleans U.S. Attorney vigorously defended his office before a federal judge in June, insisting that no one in leadership — not himself, nor his then-First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann – was aware that another prosecutor in the office had been hiding behind a moniker to make disparaging online comments about the targets of active federal investigations.
The freelance editorializing by former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone was part of the reason Letten and Mann were before the court last summer. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt was considering a motion for a new trial by the five New Orleans police officers convicted in the shooting deaths of civilians on the city’s Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina. The officers claimed prosecutors had “engaged in a secret public relations campaign” to inflame public opinion against them in the run-up to their 2011 trial and pressure witnesses to cooperate.
Perricone, the office’s senior litigation counsel, had resigned in March after admitting to posting anonymized comments on nola.com, the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s website, about Danziger Bridge and other cases in which he was involved.
In light of the revelations about the opinionated prosecutor, what did Letten have to say?
“I will tell you right now on the record that I didn’t — I’ve said this publicly before, neither I, nor Jan Mann, nor people in positions in authority in our office, to my knowledge did not have any knowledge of, nor did we authorize, nor did we procure or have any knowledge of Sal Perricone anonymously posting comments about cases or anything like that whatsoever until we learned about it in the filing,” Letten told Judge Engelhardt. “That is gospel truth.”
Mann, also in the courtroom, said nothing to the contrary.
Everything collapsed for Letten on Nov. 2 at 9:52 a.m., when a lawsuit filed by a defendant in an unrelated federal probe alleged that Mann, too, was a prolific online commenter. Her handle was “eweman,” the lawsuit claimed, and she had posted numerous comments about ongoing cases from November 2011 until last March, including at least one about the Danziger Bridge investigation.
The longest-serving U.S. Attorney in the country wasn’t going to survive the newest allegation about Mann. Letten announced his resignation Thursday after 11 years in the post.
Now, an interim U.S. Attorney has been appointed and a Georgia-based federal prosecutor has been tapped to re-examine whether any Danziger Bridge leaks can be traced to prosecutors. But how did one of the most prominent U.S. Attorney offices in the country go so astray? What led to the monumental lapses of judgment and cartoonish misconduct?
What follows is a reconstruction by Main Justice based on public records, including a Nov. 26 court order from Engelhardt.
Danziger Bridge media leaks
In May, the five former police officers convicted in the Danziger Bridge shooting filed a motion for a new trial based on alleged prosecutorial misconduct. The Danziger Bridge shootings had received national attention, with outrage growing after officers were accused of an attempted cover-up. Engelhardt presided over their 2011 trial, handing down sentences ranging from six to 65 years in prison.
Lawyers for the police officers in May questioned the frequency of unnamed law enforcement sources in news reports. The motion for a new trial said the prosecution’s “theories of the defendants’ guilt, the activities of the grand jury, the identities of targets, and the status of plea negotiations,” were released to the media, “all in an effort to convict the defendants in the court of public opinion before trial.”
The motion also discussed Perricone’s admitted anonymous online comments posted under the pseudonym “HenryLMencken1951.”
On Dec. 12, 2010, at 10:34 a.m. Perricone wrote:
“There is no Katrina defense… Danziger is totally different. I am sure the attorneys will proffer this defense, but it will fail…” He called the New Orleans Police Department a “gang of thugs” that entered the bridge “guns ablazing.”
On June 22, 2011, as jury selection began:
“NONE of these guys should have ever been given a badge… You put crap in — you get crap out!!!”
On Aug. 4, 2011, as the jury deliberation continued:
“I don’t think the jury will leave the dead and wounded on the bridge.”
The motion for a new trial said: “The government’s secret efforts to undermine the defendant’s right to a fair trial is shocking and unprecedented.”
The motion also raised questions about the plea bargain of former New Orleans Police Lt. Michael Lohman, who testified against the five officers at trial. In articles published the day before Lohman’s plea hearing, unnamed sources told the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Associated Press that Lohman was going to plead guilty in the cover up of the shooting.
Mann became the point person for defending the government’s integrity. At Judge Engelhardt’s request, Mann investigated whether her office could have been the source of any leaks. She submitted a report on June 27 denying that anyone associated with the government had leaked information to the press. Perricone was never a member of the Danziger Bridge shooting trial team, Mann wrote, nor had he been given information about Lohman’s plea, which was under seal before his court appearance, her report said.
The only person to review Perricone’s conduct was Mann, who conducted a one-on-one interview with him. Englehardt pushed for more information, such as why Perricone had not been interviewed under oath. Mann explained in her report that Perricone was under internal review by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
In August, New Orleans Magazine published an interview with Perricone in which he said Letten and Mann “had no idea what I was doing.”
‘HenryLMencken1951′ takes stand
In October, Engelhardt called Perricone into court to testify at a status hearing — this time under oath. Perricone admitted he had posted comments online under the pseudonyms ”HenryLMencken1951,” ”dramatis personae” and “legacyusa.” When asked if he knew who “eweman” was, Perricone responded, “No.”
Mann, representing the government, sat silently as Perricone spoke, just as she’d been silent in June when Letten defended her in the same courtroom. Also at the October hearing for the government was Barbara Bernstein, Deputy Chief of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section; and Theodore Carter, a prosecutor on the Danziger Bridge case.
“I’ve always suspected that the FBI had loose lips, but I don’t know anything about Danziger,” Perricone said.
Toward the end of the Oct. 10 hearing, Mann said she believed many people, including even perhaps employees of the court, posted their opinions on nola.com. Engelhardt called her bluff. He asked her for a list of government and court employees who had been found posting opinions online about ongoing proceedings.
Three days later, Mann apologized to the judge for what she believed to be a misunderstanding.
“I did not intend to cast aspersions on anyone in particular but rather was suggesting to the defense attorneys that ‘he who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone,’ ” she wrote to Engelhardt. “In trying to express these thoughts about human feelings and flaws, about hypocrisy and hidden agendas, I did not intend to suggest that anyone in particular was posting.”
She also said that before learning about Perricone’s online commenting, she had not been a reader of the nola.com comments.
‘Eweman’ is unmasked
Then on Nov. 2, the bombshell dropped: Fred Heebe, a Louisiana landfill owner at the center of a sprawling federal probe, filed a civil lawsuit alleging that Mann was the person behind the online persona “eweman.”
“A $250,000 loan to build a square foot art studio … Are the floors paved with gold? … What a crook,” wrote “eweman” on Feb. 4, 2012, speaking of one of Hebee’s landfill executives who was targeted by prosecutors.
Hebee had also revealed Perricone’s online commenting earlier in the year. “Eweman” — believed to be a combination of the initials of the colorful former Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, who Letten helped successfully prosecute for racketeering, and Mann’s last name — stopped commenting in March when Perricone was unmasked, the lawsuit said.
A majority of “eweman’s” posts were made alongside those of Perricone, the civil suit said, and frequently discussed ongoing federal prosecutions.
On Nov. 6, Letten told Engelhardt that — to his astonishment — Mann had admitted to him that she had indeed been posting comments on nola.com. But he did not confirm that Mann was “eweman.”
The next morning, the judge held another status conference. Mann did not appear, but Letten attended. Testifying was former Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Magner, who told the court that he suspected as early as December 2010 that Perricone might be “legacyusa” in the nola.com comments. The handle was behind incendiary criticism of Magner’s skills as an attorney.
Magner, unsure what to do about his suspicion, told a handful of his superiors at the U.S. Attorney’s office, including Assistant U.S. Attorneys Greg Kennedy, supervisor of the Anti-Terrorism Unit; Matt Coman, supervisor of the General Crimes Unit; and Maurice Landrieu, supervisor of the Drugs Crime Unit.
Magner said his three supervisors told him they did not want to become “enmeshed” in the rumor and were not “willing to take that risk” if Magner was wrong about Perricone.
Magner, who left the U.S. Attorney’s office in 2011 for private practice, testified that he never told Letten or Mann of his suspicions. He also never confronted Perricone, he said.
The former prosecutor also said he doubted that Perricone and Mann didn’t know about the other’s activities on the nola.com commenting board. He said Perricone was best friends with Jan Mann’s husband, Jim Mann, also a prosecutor in the office.
Magner said he believed Letten, however, was likely unaware of Perricone and Mann’s online commenting, saying the now-former U.S. Attorney “wants to think the best of people.” What’s not credible, he told the court, was that Jan Mann was also unaware of Perricone.
Colleagues of Mann were in disbelief. Mann’s admission prompted Bernstein, a longtime lawyer at Justice Department headquarters in Washington, to tell the court that she was surprised when allegations about Perricone broke earlier in the year, “and even more surprised when it turned out to be true,” she said.
“When I saw the allegations about Jan Mann last Friday, I was flabbergasted and I assumed the allegations were false,” Bernstein told the court in November. “On Monday, I heard that they were true. It had never once occurred to me to ask Jan if she had also posted online.”
Bernstein, who recently won a Justice Department award for her work on the Danziger Bridge prosecution, said she has since asked every current and former member of the Danziger Bridge trial team if they had posted comments at nola.com.
A day after the hearing, Letten announced Mann had been demoted and that her conduct was now under review by the Office of Professional Responsibility, the DOJ’s internal ethics watchdog.
‘An Act of Perfidy’
In his Nov. 26 order that the Justice Department re-do Mann’s now compromised investigation of potential government leaks, Engelhardt said the convicted police officers’ motion for a new trial can no longer be considered “frivolous.”
Engelhardt also said Perricone was almost certainly lying when he said he acted alone in posting comments.
“Indeed, Perricone and the Manns were widely considered the triumvirate responsible for managing many broad aspects of the U.S. Attorney’s office. Quite simply, no one, especially this court, could reasonably find it credible that Perricone and former First AUSA Mann, while posting under the same nola.com articles, and responding to and echoing each other’s posts, were unaware of the identity of the other,” the judge wrote.
“Any assertion to the contrary belies the fact that both Perricone and then-First AUSA Mann are highly intelligent, experienced investigators and very capable prosecutors; and it is truly hard to believe that such seasoned, savvy and keenly insightful individuals, charged with unraveling the most complex white collar crimes in this district, would completely and totally overlook such an obvious thing, especially considering the information set forth in the posts of each,” Engelhardt wrote.
“To even think as much strains credulity well beyond the breaking point,” he added.
He recalled Perricone swearing in October that no one else was posting comments while “eweman” sat only a few chairs away. ”Perricone’s admitted motivation appears to be designed to insulate others, particularly First AUSA Mann and perhaps other AUSAs,” the judge wrote.
He criticized Mann for sitting quietly during the June hearing as she let Letten unknowingly spread apparent falsehoods to the court. “She allowed him to do so — an act of perfidy.”
The judge said Mann’s report clearing the government of leaks was “necessarily filtered through her shaded desire to remain undetected as ‘eweman.’ ”
In a footnote, the judge notes another “stroke of irony,” in which Mann in a 2009 email warned attorneys in her office about speaking to the media about ongoing cases. She linked to an article about a California case that was dismissed over allegations of prosecutorial misconduct following leaks to reporters. “In case you were thinking of leaking to the press, think again…” Mann wrote.
Letten, a popular prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush but got to keep his job into the Barack Obama administration, must now assess his professional options. In a passionate resignation speech, he thanked his colleagues for their support over his more than 11 years leading the office.
News reports indicated Letten’s announcement in New Orleans was a shock to his staff, with many wiping tears from their eyes.
“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.