The late Mayor Dutch Morial once told me, "In this game, it's not your enemies you have to worry about. It's your friends — they'll do you in every time." I thought of that last week as I watched U.S. Attorney Jim Letten resign. Letten, like so many others in public life — including, ironically, some that he prosecuted — was brought down by his friends.
Letten had a remarkable prosecutorial run. (See Commentary, page 12.) He put a lot of crooks in jail, and a few more appear to be on their way there.
Letten's demise came at the hands of two of his most trusted deputies — former First Assistant Jan Mann and former trial supervisor Sal Perricone — who now face potential criminal exposure themselves for their inappropriate and unprofessional online rants. Ironically, Letten always gave his colleagues the credit for his office's success.
Two of those colleagues paid him back by causing his downfall. Mann and Perricone's online histrionics, coupled with Mann's apparent mendacity in her handling of an in-house investigation into leaks and online postings (more irony), became too much for the U.S. Department of Justice to bear. Letten had to go, and he accepted his fate with his hallmark grit.
The investigations will go on. The case involving the River Birch landfill and its owners, Fred Heebe and Jim Ward, was taken over by Washington-based prosecutors after the Perricone debacle last March. Another high-profile investigation into former Mayor Ray Nagin is expected to yield an indictment soon. That case, too, may be transferred to the D.C. folks.
There's been much speculation about Mann and Perricone's postings up-ending the Danziger Bridge verdicts. That's a stretch. Their misconduct may get the two former prosecutors into hot water, but it didn't rise to the level of poisoning jurors' minds. Not that many people read, let alone put much stock in, anonymous tirades on NOLA.com.
Letten's interim replacement, Dana Boente, a veteran prosecutor from the Eastern District of Virginia, needs to move quickly to stabilize the office and maintain public trust. He'll have help from another top prosecutor, John Horn from the Northern District of Georgia. Horn has been sent down to reopen Mann's tainted investigation into official leaks. Mann herself could wind up a target.
Then there's the search for Letten's permanent replacement. Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu holds the cards there. Many names have surfaced, but Landrieu's recommendation (she could forward several names, actually) ultimately could be someone nobody is even thinking of right now. The senator has no reason to rush. In the wake of the online commenting scandal, the vetting process now has a whole new layer of inquiry.
Landrieu's overriding focus should be finding someone qualified for the job. I know that's obvious, but in politics you often have to state the obvious. Not everybody whose name has been mentioned is "qualified." In light of the white-knuckle cases pending (and anticipated) on Poydras Street, Landrieu shouldn't even consider anyone who lacks significant criminal law experience, preferably at the federal level. That would narrow the field considerably, and it would render a short list of highly qualified aspirants.
If there's one thing Landrieu should avoid at all costs, it's anyone whose principal qualification is that he or she is "acceptable" to the local political establishment. Experience has taught us that such folks are likely to be way too conflicted when certain friends, or friends of their friends, find themselves in the crosshairs. Think Eddie Jordan and Cleo Fields.
As for Letten, despite how his own friends did him in, he will be lionized by a grateful public — as long as he remains personally uninvolved in the unfolding scandal.