Learning From the Spirit of the Jim Letten Years

AN ORIGINAL ©MIKE LUCKOVICH CARTOON FOR NEW ORLEANS MAGAZINE

Crime fighting and public integrity took a big step backward in 2012 with the resignation of U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. He was the person in public life that people trusted most. His reputation as a crime fighter was unparalleled by anyone who has held that office locally.

Letten’s resignation was triggered by the revelation that two of his former assistants, Sal Perricone and Jan Mann, had anonymously written outspoken online comments to articles on NOLA.com. They were outed through the efforts of investigators hired by businessman Fred Heebe who reportedly is being investigated in the River Burch landfill controversy.

What Perricone and Mann did was wrong, certainly a conflict of interest for the position they held, though technically not illegal. There was a touch of Camelot to the saga of the idealist king feeling let down by his knights.

Both assistants (who deserve credit for having been good, effective crime fighters) have been rebuked, but we keep thinking that none of this would have happened were it not for other forces in the forest.

Heebe certainly had the right to fight back against unflattering web comments, and he was fortunate to have the resources to do so, but look at the damage already done because of River Birch – such as the case of Henry Mouton, a former state Wildlife and Fisheries commissioner. In June, Mouton pleaded guilty in federal court to a conspiracy for accepting $463,970 in payoffs, from what was subsequently identified as River Burch, to lobby against a competing dump site. Investigations also reached into the administration of former Parish President Aaron Broussard. Heebe has not yet been indicted but it’s clear that whatever has happened at River Birch has hurt many people, including the public, which has lost the person who provided the most hope that the area’s reputation for corruption could be countered.

Now comes the business of selecting a replacement. The choice will ultimately be that of President Obama, but, as protocol has it, presidents seek advice from the congressional members of their party. Senator Mary Landrieu will have an important role. Early speculation has provided several names, few of them very promising, mostly more of the same old political faces. Letten was successful because he rose through the ranks. Rather than being a figurehead U.S. Attorney, he was someone who had already proven his way in court.

Camelot ended with Arthur finding hope from the enthusiasm of a young boy who wanted to be a part of the spirit of the round table. We hope the Letten years have encouraged other people to be as idealistic in pursuing justice and in sending a message to those who would do wrong that, even if they win battles, the war continues.
 

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