The spring of 1976 was a heady time for future U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and then-Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, but for very different reasons. The two men had not yet met, but that spring they embarked on separate courses that would eventually bring them face to face — as adversaries — in a federal courtroom in Baton Rouge 24 years later.
In the spring of '76, Letten, then 22, was about to graduate from the University of New Orleans with a degree in journalism; he looked forward to beginning his course of study at Tulane Law School. Eighty miles upriver, Edwards had just taken his second oath of office as Louisiana's wisecracking, skirt-chasing governor. Letten was still playing drums in a rock band and was only beginning to gravitate toward a career as a criminal prosecutor. Edwards, on the other hand, was at the top of his political game; as he thumbed his nose at federal investigators, he made Louisiana his personal playground.
When the two men finally faced off in federal court in 2000, their career paths were on opposite trajectories. Edwards' once-stratospheric popularity had plummeted, and now he stood accused of taking bribes to rig the award of Louisiana's riverboat gambling licenses. The charges against him also included violations of the far-reaching RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act, a criminal statute often used against mobsters.
Letten, meanwhile, had earned his stripes in the U.S. Department of Justice's Organized Crime Strike Force as a hard-nosed prosecutor. He had recently convicted several suspected Mafia chieftains for trying to take over Louisiana's nascent video poker industry. Now he was the first assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, a rising star in the office and the government's lead prosecutor against Edwards, who had outwitted the feds for the better part of three decades.
The juxtaposition of their career tracks wasn't the only ironic twist to their courtroom faceoff. When the feds began their years-long investigation of Edwards, Letten wasn't even on the case. "I actually did not want to do the Edwards case," Letten recalls, adding that he has never admitted that in public before now. "[The case] needed a lot of work. So I got drafted to do it. I remember ... calling Washington and trying to beg off. I told them I had more than my plate full as first assistant, and a family to tend to. That request was met with a very polite, 'Thanks, but you're doing this.' I haven't tried a case since then."
The Edwards case would be a fitting capstone to any prosecutor's career. The former governor was convicted on multiple counts, including racketeering, and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
Without mentioning Edwards by name, Letten notes that Louisiana citizens no longer find corruption entertaining. "Citizens realize now that the entertainment was at their expense," he says. "They realize that it has taken food out of their mouths. It has taken their jobs away. It's contributed to dangerous streets, poverty, lack of opportunity."
Today, Edwin Edwards sits in a federal prison — while Jim Letten is hitting his stride in his ninth year as U.S. Attorney. Although he now spends most of his time behind a desk, one thing hasn't changed about Letten: He still brings a laser-like focus and dog-with-a-bone tenacity to his job.
"Nobody out-works Jim," says his first assistant, veteran prosecutor Jan Maselli Mann. "He's the first in the office in the morning and the last to leave at the end of the day. And he works nonstop, all day long. He hits his stride very early and it's go-go-go all day long. He maintains an extremely high energy level."
Letten's hallmark focus and intensity have served him — and southeast Louisiana — very well. Since he became U.S. Attorney, his office has prosecuted more than 230 individuals for public corruption, charged nearly 150 more with Katrina fraud, and pursued hundreds of other felony cases ranging from child porn to house flipping to bank robbery.
That kind of productivity has made Letten a household name and hero to local law enforcement and reform groups. After the 2008 national elections, newly re-elected U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, formally submitted Letten's name to President Barack Obama for reappointment — even though Letten, a Republican, was first appointed by President George W. Bush. The White House has not yet acted officially on Landrieu's submission, but there are no signs that Letten's reappointment is in jeopardy, either.
On a roll since the storm, federal investigators and prosecutors reached a new level of productivity in 2009, particularly in their fight against political corruption. More than 20 alleged crooks were indicted or convicted in a dozen high-profile cases last year. Among the notable cases of 2009:
• Mose Jefferson, brother of former Congressman Bill Jefferson, was convicted on four of seven felony counts in August, including bribery and obstruction of justice. (Earlier that same month, the congressman was convicted of racketeering and 10 other felonies in an unrelated case in Virginia.)
• In a separate case, Mose Jefferson, Assessor Betty Jefferson, former City Councilwoman Renee Gill-Pratt, and Betty Jefferson's daughter Angela Coleman were charged last month in a second superseding indictment with conspiracy to violate RICO, mail fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and aggravated identity theft in connection with the alleged skimming of public funds from nonprofits they operated. They are scheduled to stand trial later this month.
• Former city technology boss Greg Meffert, his wife Linda and former Meffert partner Mark St. Pierre were charged in November in a 63-count indictment for conspiracy, wire fraud, bribery, money laundering and other charges. The case stems from City Hall's crime camera debacle. The City Hall investigation is "ongoing," Letten says.
• Former state Sen. Derrick Shepherd of Marrero pleaded guilty in October to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Shepherd initially faced more charges, but copped a plea and is rumored to be cooperating with the feds. His sentencing has been postponed several times.
• Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price pleaded guilty to tax evasion and defrauding citizens of his honest services in October, and immediately resigned from office.
• St. John the Baptist Parish President Bill Hubbard pleaded guilty in September to conspiracy to solicit and receive bribes after shaking down contractors to pay for a car for his girlfriend.
• Gretna City Councilman Jonathan Bolar faces 18 felony charges, including extortion, wire fraud, failure to file income tax returns and structuring financial transactions to evade federal reporting requirements. His trial is set for Jan. 11.
• St. Bernard Parish District Judge Wayne Cresap and two attorneys pleaded guilty in October to a bribery scheme.
• Longtime Sewerage and Water Board member Ben Edwards Sr. was charged last month with 33 felony counts, including conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion, money laundering and tax evasion. In the same case and on the same day, Edwards' brother Bruce Edwards Sr. pleaded guilty to wire fraud and tax evasion, and Oliver "O.C." Coleman pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony (wire fraud). Both are expected to testify against Ben Edwards Sr., who was a major supporter of Mayor Ray Nagin's re-election effort in 2006.
• Former state Film Commission executive Mark Smith pleaded guilty in July to conspiracy and bribery charges and was sentenced to two years in jail plus a fine of $67,500. In the same case, attorney and film producer Malcolm Petal and attorney William Bradley also pleaded guilty; both received jail time and fines, and Petal was ordered to pay more than $1.3 million in restitution.
• Former Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) official Dwayne Muhammad pleaded guilty last month to stealing funds from a Section 8 voucher program.
• Elias Castellanos, the former chief financial officer of HANO, pleaded guilty in September to stealing $900,000 from HANO.
• Four men working on the I-10 widening project in Jefferson Parish pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to bribe a state official. Convicted were Jeff Bentley, a state employee and project manager on the I-10 project; Albert "Buddy" Andre and Jason Guy, both former employees of the prime contractor; and Harry Labiche Jr., a plumbing subcontractor.
Such a list of public corruption cases would be impressive for any federal prosecutor over the course of eight years in office. Letten and his modern-day Untouchables did all that in 2009 — and that list doesn't include dozens of public corruption convictions in Orleans and Jefferson parishes before last year. The earlier convictions include two Jefferson Parish judges and several associates of former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial. Letten takes no credit for himself.
"I get accolades that I just do not deserve as a result of the work that other people in this office do — the prosecutors, the secretaries, the support staff, and of course our partners, the [FBI and DEA] agents, the U.S. Marshals, and others in law enforcement," Letten says, giving particular credit to First Assistant Mann. He adds that the local FBI office recently was ranked second in the nation by the Department of Justice for the volume and quality of its public corruption cases.
Of his New Orleanian of the Year honor, Letten says: "I consider myself a very small part of this. I'm dumb lucky to be where I am. Very fortunate circumstances have placed me here, and I'm very humbled by this recognition that I really can't lay claim to. Other people have earned it."
When he's not chasing crooks, Letten spends time with his wife JoAnn, their two children and the family dog, a black Lab named Rico (as in RICO, the federal racketeering statute). His current passion is volunteering with his son on the World War II Museum's ongoing restoration of the PT-305. Once an avid hunter and fisherman (he tried golf but found it took too much practice), Letten and his son also share a fondness for recreational target shooting.
While federal rules prohibit Letten from talking too much about ongoing cases, nothing stands in the way of him gushing about his "personal epiphany" long ago.
"If there was one thing in my life, one single event that changed the way I looked at the world, it was the first Ed Sullivan Show on which the Beatles appeared in February 1964," he says. "I went back to St. Matthias School the next morning and all the guys wanted long hair. We wanted to play rock 'n' roll instruments. We wanted screaming girls to be all around us. As a result I went out and bought a dollar pair of drumsticks at Werlein's and started beating on furniture until my parents finally got me a drum. We immediately formed a rock 'n' roll band in sixth grade."
The band members called themselves The Malibus, he recalls, because "The Beatles" was already taken. A year later, they won the St. Matthias talent show playing the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."
For the next few years, it was all tight jeans and turtlenecks for Letten ("even when it was 100 degrees outside"). While a student at De La Salle High School, he played college frat parties in bars and reception halls, an experience that turned him into a party animal who did not exactly distinguish himself academically. (He readily admits he graduated "in the bottom half" of his law school class at Tulane.)
"We were devouring music by people like Jimi Hendrix, who was my favorite, The Who, the Rolling Stones, and even obscure stuff like Blood Rock and Johnny Winter," he says. "Still, that's all I listen to. I never outgrew it."
Literally. Letten had to give up the rock star life when he started law school, but years later, on the eve of his 40th birthday, he convinced his wife to let him take up the drums again. He initially fell in with friends who wanted to play traditional stuff, but he wanted to stay "very feral." He now plays with three friends in a band called Tic Douloureux (named for a painful facial neuralgia — two of the band members are dentists). Letten admits that he sings "badly" and describes himself as "a reasonably competent rock drummer without any real technical skills at all." He laughs as he mentions an old joke that a drummer is "a guy who hangs out with musicians."
While the image of a straight-as-an-arrow federal prosecutor pounding a set of drums in a rock band may seem incongruous, Letten's associates say it's typical of a guy who genuinely likes to be around people. Awards share space on his office walls with humorous cards and drawings. When he's not devouring rock music, he's devouring sweets, especially chocolates.
"What he appears to be, he really is," says Mann, who describes Letten as "sort of Columbo-esque," after the legendary TV detective portrayed by Peter Falk. "He's very smart, very quick. He just absorbs everything around him." Mann adds that all the recognition hasn't changed Letten, either. "He is just as friendly to people who work around here as he is with people in Washington."
A former colleague, retired veteran federal prosecutor Bob Boitmann (who served as interim U.S. Attorney in the early 1990s), agrees. "He could be talking to somebody who's in the projects and he gives them the same concern he gives to a Medal of Honor winner," Boitmann says. "He's a passionate prosecutor. ... He cares more about people and he works harder than anybody can imagine."
Boitmann tells an anecdote to drive home his point: "I remember 9/11. I was heading for a plane to go to Belgium. I turned around to go to the office, and when I get there I go into Jim's office — and he's crying for the people in those towers."
Though no longer a daily fixture in federal courtrooms, Letten continues to present his case against "the Louisiana Way." In interviews and public addresses, he points to what he says are two extraordinary changes since Hurricane Katrina.
"The average person now really understands consciously that corruption materially affects his or her quality of life, and I think the average person also understands and believes that they do not have to live as slaves to corruption, that we can do something about it," he says. "I think that apathy is gone. It has been replaced by enthusiasm, by anger, by righteous indignation, and by a sense of community that is very constructive and very demanding. ...
"But that sort of positive pressure has to continue. You can never give up the fight. You will never completely beat corruption. It's never gonna go away. But what we can do is end our tolerance of it, and I think we're on the road to doing that."
Letten is cautious not to say that Louisiana has "turned a corner" in the fight against corruption. "We have a lot of work left to do. I think we're beginning to show some traction, beginning to change the reality and the image of this place as a haven for corruption. ... The last thing I'd want is for people to now breathe a sigh of relief, relax, loosen up, or somehow become complacent, because that'll kill us."
Such sentiments have become a mantra for Letten. He expressed them in a recent commencement address at his alma mater, UNO, which named him its "Homer Hitt Distinguished Alumnus" in 2008, and two years ago in a keynote address to a conference on transparency in the Czech Republic. "I believe that the primary threat to the redevelopment, viability, and even survival of our great international port city and our state is not necessarily another hurricane," he told the Czech conferees. "Rather, it is corruption and the debilitating harm to our economy, social order, and institutions that corruption and our tolerance of it have caused over many, many years."
Looking ahead, Letten promises to "stay the course." If recent headlines are any indication, his plate remains full — and likely will stay full for years to come.