The Department of Justice’s is keeping information about its probe of the New Orleans U.S. Attorney’s office under wraps, suggesting that the inquiry into the scandal that cost former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten his job may have a way to go and could end in ethics or even criminal charges being lodged.
The DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates reports of prosecutor misconduct, has just rebuffed a request for news about the investigation, The Times-Picayune reported on its NOLA.com website. The news organization had filed a request for data under the Freedom of Information Act.
Lyn Hardy, an OPR counsel who handles FOIA issues, said she was rejecting the request under a federal law that allows reports to be kept confidential when disclosing them “could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings,” NOLA.com reported.
Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School and an expert on prosecutorial misconduct, cautioned that the government’s refusal to turn over information “may simply be an indication that the investigation isn’t over,” NOLA.com said. But Gershman said the reference to “enforcement proceedings” could also mean ethical or criminal charges are forthcoming — a development that would surprise no one who has followed the tangled affairs of the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Letten stepped down in December after a months-long controversy over the actions of two subordinates, as Main Justice reported. An Assistant U.S. Attorney, Sal Perricone, had left the office after it was revealed early in 2012 that he had been posting vitriolic comments about ongoing federal cases, some of which he was involved in, on NOLA.com. In November, another (high-heeled) shoe fell, when it was revealed that First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann was posting similar comments. She, too, departed.
Such indiscreet moonlighting by the prosecutors might have produced jaw-dropping amazement in a venue other than Louisiana, which has a history of unconventional public figures.
Letten himself requested the investigation by the OPR, an investigation that U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt of the Eastern District of Louisiana said he had little confidence in because the DOJ would in effect be investigating itself. The DOJ then announced that it was appointing John A. Horn, the First Assistant District Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, to investigate leaks of information from Letten’s office (see Main Justice’s report.)
The information leaks involved cases against five New Orleans police officers who were eventually convicted of charges in connection with fatal shootings on a bridge following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That episode was one of the ugliest in the history of the New Orleans police department.
But much of the impetus for the eventual outing of Perricone and Mann arose from an unrelated case, in which a landfill operator who was the target of a federal investigation claimed that people in the U.S. Attorney’s office were trying to smear him.
It can be hard to follow every step of the Louisiana probe that toppled Letten, who had held office for 11 years. For a reconstruction of what happened, see Main Justice’s post-mortem.
Dana Boente is interim U.S. Attorney in New Orleans, and Kenneth Polite Jr. appears to be in line to replace Letten, as Main Justice reported recently.
Meanwhile, the investigation by the OPR goes on quietly, as does the inquiry by John A. Horn, and no one has suggested that investigators don’t have enough to do.