Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cat and mouse

Posted By on Sat, Mar 5, 2011 at 6:01 PM

The federal indictment of former state Wildlife and Fisheries commissioner Henry Mouton signals a new chapter in the investigation into alleged corruption in Jefferson Parish. It also shows the feds’ latest move in a lawyerly game of cat and mouse between the government and the principals of River Birch landfill.

Several years ago, River Birch landed a controversial $160 million landfill contract with Jefferson Parish — at the behest of former Parish President Aaron Broussard, who himself is a target of federal investigators. That contract remains in limbo pending the investigation.

FBI agents raided River Birch’s office in September, carting off boxes of records, data and digital hardware relating to River Birch. They also seized records of other companies owned by River Birch principals Fred Heebe and his stepfather, Jim Ward. The companies all share office space.

Heebe and Ward sued the feds, claiming federal agents exceeded the scope of the search warrant by seizing records unrelated to River Birch. U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan agreed and ordered the feds to return records from the other companies. Heebe and Ward claim the feds are holding back some disputed records.

So where does Mouton, of Lafayette, fit in?

After Hurricane Katrina, state and federal disaster response officials re-opened the Old Gentilly Landfill in eastern New Orleans on an emergency basis. The Gentilly landfill was controversial because it allegedly did not meet environmental standards.

Mouton, whose credentials as a conservationist are well established, launched what appeared to be a one-man campaign against the Gentilly landfill — and praising River Birch. He wrote letters to state and federal regulators at every level, often on official state Wildlife and Fisheries Commission stationery. Among the recipients of his complaints, coincidentally, were the FBI and the U.S. Attorney.

Now the feds say Mouton was on somebody’s payroll (read: Heebe’s companies) all the while — to the tune of more than $460,000, which they claim was bribe money disguised by Mouton and an unnamed co-conspirator. Apparently the records showing scores of allegedly illicit payments to Mouton are among those that Berrigan has determined were improperly seized by the feds during the raid on River Birch.

All of which makes the timing of the Mouton indictment very interesting. If some of those disputed records form the basis of Mouton’s indictment, the feds could run into a “fruit of the poisonous tree” problem — which would bar them from using anything in those records AND anything they found as a result of getting those records against Mouton, Heebe or anyone else.

On the other hand, Mouton himself may have provided the “independent source” needed by the feds to get around the “poisonous fruit” argument when he wrote to the FBI complaining about the Gentilly landfill in the first place. Another independent source could emerge from a civil suit filed last week against River Birch by a competitor, Concrete Busters of Louisiana. Concrete Busters claims in its suit that River Birch colluded with Jefferson Parish officials to get the contract. Look for Heebe to settle that lawsuit quickly — before the discovery process forces him to turn over the very records that Heebe doesn’t want the feds to get their hands on.

Meanwhile, the Mouton indictment contains other allegations that don’t necessarily flow from the disputed records (read: leverage). At a minimum, the indictment says a lot about the direction of the feds’ investigation into Jefferson Parish corruption.

This is a complex, high-stakes game of cat and mouse. The legal maneuvers and details may cause non-lawyers’ eyes to glaze over, but there’s no denying who’s the cat … and who’s the mouse.

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