On Jefferson Highway, between sips of vegetable soup, 80-year-old criminal defense attorney Sam Dalton ponders the future of local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.
Letten, 54, chief federal prosecutor for the 13-parish Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans, has been the talk of the town.
In the long wake of federal public corruption investigations from City Hall to the Jefferson Parish Courthouse, there has been a growing public awareness that Letten’s days as the local “U.S.A.” (U.S. Attorney) may be numbered. He is a Republican appointee and the next president may be a Democrat.
“I got a lot of respect for Letten,” says Dalton, who’s been practicing law in Jefferson Parish for more than half a century. “I think he’s honest, he’s properly motivated and he’s the type of power-holder we ought to have more of.”
Cheron Brylski, a media consultant who served as press secretary to the late mayor Dutch Morial, would prefer that government be restructured by voters rather than by federal grand juries. “However, Jim Letten is doing what no reporter, no reformer, no watchdog has been able to do since I started in government 30 years ago,” Brylski says. “Democrats and Republicans respect him, even if they fear him.”
He is perhaps best known as the lead federal prosecutor in the federal corruption case that sent former governor Edwin Edwards to prison. A 25-year career federal prosecutor, Letten is so energetic, strait-laced and concerned about integrity that most locals are surprised to learn he’s a native New Orleanian.
In a wide-ranging interview, Letten explains his staunch defense of discredited U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, reveals his motives in a brothel case ad and responds to criticisms of his office; he also describes the effect on his family of a 19th century police killing and discloses his Superdome-sized dream.
“I am going to hang onto this office as long as the Department (of Justice) and the Administration believe that I am worthy of this job,” Letten says, quickly adding: “I am not contemplating any run for political office.”
Letten is an unapologetic admirer of President Bush’s former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who resigned under a cloud amid a congressional probe into the politically motivated firings of U.S. Attorneys, among other allegations.
In Katrina-related testimony before separate congressional committees this year, Letten gave glowing accounts of the embattled Attorney General’s efforts to aid New Orleans.
Q. “Was Jim Letten just being the good Marine and praising his boss?”
Letten. “From where [I] sit and from where I have sat for the last six and half years as U.S. Attorney, I have been extremely impressed by what I saw as a real commitment to this city, this district and this region by Judge Gonzales.”
Gonzales came to New Orleans after Katrina eight times as U.S. Attorney General. Immediately after the storm, he sent prosecutors, federal agents and support staff to the flood-crippled city – and $86 million in aid.
“Quite frankly he delivered,” Letten says. “He deserves credit for that.”
Whether the aid would have come to America’s most devastated city anyway seems almost beside the point to Letten. Gonzales answered the city’s call for help.
He proudly notes that Gonzales came to New Orleans to open the new federal Family Justice Center for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse – “the day after he tendered his resignation.”
Vitter and the Brothel case
After U.S. Sen. David Vitter acknowledged he was a customer of the Washington’s notorious “D.C. Madam” earlier this year, Jeannette Maier, the former madam of the “Canal Street Brothel” in New Orleans, announced that Vitter had frequented her establishment, too.
Letten then took an extraordinary step for the local U.S. Attorney’s Office – which does not publicly confirm or deny speculation about its investigations. He publicly announced that Vitter’s name had never come up in his office’s prosecution of the Canal Street Brothel several years ago, directly contradicting Maier.
“I had a very pragmatic and very pointed reason for doing that,” Letten says. “And I discussed this with Washington before I did it.”
Cynics assumed that Letten was going to bat for Vitter. After all, they said, Louisiana’s leading Republican was Letten’s chief sponsor in the Senate when the prosecutor was officially confirmed as the “U.S.A.” for the federal district New Orleans.
“No,” Letten says, shaking his head in response. “Actually, this is one of those ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ things. It had nothing to with Senator Vitter.”
The Canal Street Brothel case was a nationwide racketeering case that broke after Sept. 11. The case resulted in closed brothels, federal convictions and favorable headlines for prosecutors in multiple host cities – except in New Orleans. Editorial writers and other critics chided Letten’s office for charging the prostitutes but none of their local well-heeled clients, who paid $300 hour – the same rate, ironically, as many corporate lawyers. “During that case, I thought there was some pretty rank speculation that there were important and influential people on this ‘mysterious list’ whose names were not being outed because we somehow wanted to protect them,” Letten says.
The case has stuck in the craw of local prosecutors ever since.
So, after Vitter’s name surfaced in the D.C. Madam’s phone records recently, Letten moved to nip any speculation that he and the local feds had once seen Vitter’s name in a hooker’s black book and concealed it. “I wanted to send a very clear signal to the public that that was not the case in order to maintain the public’s trust with me and this office,” he says.
He adds he then consulted with the Department of Justice before announcing that Vitter’s name had not come up in the Canal Street case. “They understood and had no heartburn with that,” Letten says of Justice Department officials.
He continues: “Now mind you, we weren’t giving anyone a clean bill of health. We weren’t saying what happened or didn’t happen. We simply said that [Vitter’s] name had not been asserted during the investigation.
“I did it to set the record straight so there wouldn’t be rank speculation that maybe there had been some type of punches pulled or some type of inclination to protect anyone. I hope that carries some logic.”
Later, another key figure in the Brothel probe stepped forward to say Vitter’s name hadn’t surfaced in the now-closed case – “Vinny” Mosca, Maier’s own criminal defense attorney.
Relationship with District Attorneys
Letten’s impatience with the beleaguered offices of District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. continues to seep out.
Divisions between local district attorneys and local U.S. Attorneys predate Jordan and Letten.
Retired Orleans district attorney Harry Connick – an admirer of Letten and a critic of Jordan – still bristles when recalling how former U.S. Attorney John Volz’s office seized evidence from Connick’s office during investigations in the New Orleans Police Department killings of four blacks in Algiers in the early 1980s.
Connick said that when he was an Assistant U.S. Attorney there was a rule that federal prosecutors would check with the local district attorney before opening a case.
“We do not have – quite frankly – a rule where we check with the district attorney ‘s office before we proceed,” says Letten, who got his start as a state prosecutor under Connick. “We just don’t do that.”
However, if a district attorney already has a suspect who can be charged with federal crimes, then federal prosecutors will alert their local counterparts of their intent to perform an “adoption” of the state case. “It’s a matter of courtesy,” Letten says.
Skeptics worry that police corruption may be fueling the violence and drug traffic post-Katrina. Federal prosecution of police misconduct has dropped off sharply since the storm, compared to prosecutions by Jordan’s office. And Letten’s office has “adopted” few, if any, of the nearly two-dozen police misconduct cases prosecuted by Jordan.
In addition, former mayor Marc Morial and members of the Black Congressional Caucus have called on the Justice Department to prosecute the racially charged, “Danziger 7” – the seven policemen accused of killing two people and seriously wounding four others at Danziger Bridge during the chaotic aftermath of Katrina.
By most accounts, Jordan’s office has made a mess of the case, which threatens to undermine efforts by the district attorney and Police Chief Warren Riley to unify cops and prosecutors against violent crime.
Letten refuses to talk about specific cases but his irritability with Jordan seeped out in an interview.
Q. Frankly, there’s a feeling on the street that – “the feds and Letten just want to let Eddie Jordan fall on his face so they’re not taking the case.”
Letten. “First of all, Mr. Jordan is responsible for Mr. Jordan’s office. He has full jurisdiction and control over those charges that that office considers and the machinations of that office.”
Any suggestions that the Feds want Jordan to fail are “totally without merit and unnecessarily cynical.” Moreover, the Feds have taken numerous violent crime and drug cases typically handled by Jordan’s office. And the Feds have helped the district attorney get several million dollars to hire additional prosecutors.
Letten later added: “If the district attorney’s office jumps on a case and indicates that they want to proceed with an investigation and a potential prosecution, it is a well recognized, standard and appropriate protocol for the federal authorities – including the [Justice’s Department’s] Civil Rights Division – not to obstruct that. We will not wrestle with them [the district attorney ‘s office] over that case. It is a normal protocol for us to allow that case to unfold.”
Meanwhile, Letten says, his office and the FBI will remain “extremely vigilant and aggressive” in prosecuting police misconduct. “We have been more aggressive than any prosecution administration here in the history of this city in going after corruption,” he says. “But that shouldn’t suggest that we will pick up and run with any case the district attorney doesn’t wrap up with a conviction.”
Later, Letten added that Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division “ultimately makes the primary calls” on federal prosecutions of police wrongdoing.
“Beyond us not operating in a vacuum, the Civil Rights Division is actually central to the process of deciding if, when and under what circumstances the federal government should intervene.”
The machinations of prosecutions are tedious. Even veteran lawyers such as Sam Dalton express more interest in how Letten grew up to become a straight arrow in a city with a reputation for corruption.
Jim Letten was born Sept. 12, 1953 at Southern Baptist hospital, the only child of Alden and Dorothy “Dot” Letten.
His father, a Navy “Seabees” veteran of World War II, worked for Moore Steel, a local steel fabrication company at Thalia and Tchoupitoulas streets. His mother was a homemaker. Both were active in civic groups. “We were never a family of any means, though,” he says.
He remembers a loving and affectionate family. “I think I always had an innate fear of failing and disappointing my parents, who expected so much from me,” he says. “I think that drives me to this day. I fear letting people down who depend on me – my wife, my kids, the people I work for, my troops, my friends. I really fear that.”
Letten had a “third parent” – his maternal grandmother, Kate Bulliung, the daughter of slain New Orleans policeman Anthony Cleary. Bulliung lived with the Lettens in their modest house behind Xavier University. She regaled young Jim with tales of the man who would’ve been his great-grandfather. “She was the one who told me stories about him, even though she never knew him,” Letten recalls.
In fact, Bulliung was six-months old when her father was killed in the line of duty. After roll call, NOPD Officer Cleary and his police partner Martin Trimp were shot to death as they tried to arrest a suspect in the vicinity of Perdido and Rampart streets on the morning of May 6, 1898.
As the officers approached their suspect, he pulled a sawed off double-barreled shotgun “and blew both their heads off,” Letten says.
Other officers rushed to the scene. A running gun battle ensued – on horseback. The cop killer was finally cornered and shot to death in a horse stable on Bernadotte Street. “When I was a kid, I was made by my grandmother and my parents to feel great pride that ... my great-grandfather had been a police officer who gave his life in the line of duty.
“I used to play with his leather police belt when I was a kid,” Letten adds. Today, he remembers Officer Cleary in addresses to police graduation classes.
He attended St. Mathias elementary school in Broadmoor. His classmates included children from the Landrieu political family, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Johnny Fortunato and state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Leon Cannizzaro.
He entered De La Salle in 1967, where he wrote for an “underground” school newspaper, the Bare Fax.
Bill Hebert, 72, supervisor of instruction at De La Salle suggests Letten’s powers of persuasion surfaced as a junior in Algebra II, during the 1969-’70 school year. “He brags about me getting him through math – which took a lot of work and after-school tutoring” at Letten’s request, says Hebert, now in his 52nd year of teaching.
“He could make a good argument why the answer to two times zero was two,” Hebert chuckles. “In fact, he would convince the other two students that the answer was ‘two.’”
Letten attributes the tutorial incident to “mischief and my abject disdain for anything mathematical.” He graduated from high school in 1971.
He attended the University of New Orleans (UNO), where he contemplated a career in journalism. “We thought he was a ‘narc’ in college,” Bernie Cyrus, the former state music commissioner and UNO student, would later say.
Letten smiles, and shakes his head – no. He graduated from UNO in 1976. Any writing skills were “incinerated” by the time he finished Tulane Law School in ‘79.
He then spent four years as a young prosecutor for district attorney Harry Connick. He fondly recalls hearing young Harry Connick, Jr., play a piano inside the grand jury conference room of the district attorney’s building on South White Street.
Letten’s career as a federal prosecutor has been active. He started out in 1982, on an organized crime strike force. He was involved in the successful prosecution of the top-level members of the New Orleans Mafia, as well as those from New York crime families. From ‘94-2001, he served as First Assistant to then-U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan, Jr., who is now district attorney.
Letten was lead prosecutor in the Edwin Edwards racketeering trial, the case that defined his career. (He got his dog “Rico” during the trial).
But Letten downplays his role in the case that brought him statewide fame, saying he made sure he was the “least sharp prosecutor” on the government team. He says his “most gratifying cases” were won as a prosecutor at Tulane and Broad streets (also known as the Criminal Courthouse), where he prosecuted rapists and armed robbers, earning the gratitude of their victims. “A thank you and the notion that you protected someone is what drives you,” he says.
Paint It Black
Jim Letten has a dream. It has nothing to do with prosecutions or the law.
A rock ‘n’ roll drummer in a garage band, Letten digs the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and other hard rock groups.
He once jammed with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft after dining on oysters at the Acme Oyster House. “Ashcroft loves oysters,” Letten says. “We later took a stroll down Royal Street protected by the FBI,” Letten recalls, adding he steered his religious conservative boss away from nearby Bourbon Street.
At the Letten home, “Ashcroft plopped himself down in front of the piano and started playing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ ... he was a great singer and a killer piano player.” Letten accompanied him on guitar.
Jim Letten’s dream is this: “Other than world peace and safety and health for my family and city, my great wish is to play is to play drums with the Stones in the Superdome,” he confesses.
Q. “But the acoustics are lousy there.”
Letten. (grinning) “Who cares?”
Man of convictions
Since Jim Letten succeeded Eddie Jordan Jr. as the U.S. Attorney for the 13-parish Eastern District of Louisiana, more than 200 people have been indicted on federal corruption charges:
• “Operation Wrinkled Robe,” the long-running federal probe of judicial misconduct at the Jefferson Parish Courthouse yielded 17 criminal convictions, including judges Ronald Bodenheimer and Alan Green, bail bond magnate Louis Marcotte and several deputies in the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office who were assigned to the jail.
The FBI investigation ran for more than 7 years, turning up one scandal after another. Former Special Agent-In-Charge Louis Riegel once complained that the case was taking longer to close than the bureau’s probe of the Sept. 11 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center.
Bodenheimer was recently released from prison to a halfway house. Green, 54, is incarcerated at a medium-security federal prison at Beaumont, Texas. He isn’t scheduled to be released until December 2009, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons Web site. (www.bop.gov)
Marcotte was shipped to the medium-security Texarkana Federal Correctional Institute, after media reports that he was confined at the Oakdale, La., Federal Detention Camp – along with former Gov. Edwin Edwards.
A civil suit is still pending against many of the Wrinkled Robe defendants in federal court.
• A long-running federal probe of the Orleans Parish Public Schools system had resulted in 29 indictments, 23 of which ended in convictions, as of Oct. 9.
Ellenesse Brooks-Simms, the former School Board president who admitted to taking $100,000 bribes then wearing a “wire” for the FBI, was awaiting trial in the fall.
The FBI is no longer housed at the School Board headquarters in Algiers, an unprecedented phenomenon for both the school system and the bureau, which has 56 field offices in the U.S. and her territories.
The School Board probe is lead by federal prosecutor Carter Guice, a key figure in obtaining a guilty plea in the unrelated corruption probe of white supremacist David Duke, formerly of Mandeville, who’s now out of federal prison.
• The New Orleans City Hall corruption probe has turned up 16 indictments, all resulting in convictions.
Glenn Haydel, 61, a former president of the Regional Transit Authority and uncle of former mayor Marc Morial, has been released from prison to a halfway house. Haydel admitted defrauding the RTA of $550,000. Haydel was confined at the same Pensacola, Fla., Federal Prison Camp as William A. “Billy” Schultz, a longtime Morial ally and political operative, who was sentenced to a year and one day on a tax charge, stemming from an unrelated corruption probe.
• Kerry DeCay, 47, whom Morial appointed as director of the city Department of Property Management, is serving a nine-year prison at a federal medical prison in Levens, Mass. He is not scheduled for release until 2015. DeCay, also a former major player in the Civil Sheriff’s Office, was convicted on corruption charges in connection with the multi-million dollar Johnson Controls energy contract.
• Stan “Pampy” Barre, a politically connected businessman, Morial ally, and former New Orleans cop was also convicted after pleading guilty in the Johnson scandal. He is expected to be sentenced in November.
During the summer, dozens of politicos reportedly turned out for a big party at his popular restaurant, “Pampy’s” – the night before Barre closed the establishment. “I don’t see why they have to close the restaurant,” one political consultant later said of the Barre family.
• Former City Council-at-large member Oliver Thomas Jr. is still cooperating with FBI agents this fall after his stunning Aug. 13 guilty plea to bribery and a kickback scheme.
• The New Orleans Traffic Court corruption probe resulted in 14 indictments and convictions in connection with multiple ticket-fixing schemes, as of early October. Letten admonished elected traffic court judges to spend more time in court, supervising their employees.
• Lloyd Holiman and Andrew Rose, two managers of the FEMA Disaster Assistance base camp at Algiers, were convicted for soliciting bribes as public officials, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Rose, 57, is not scheduled to be released from prison until next May. Post-conviction information on Holiman was unavailable.
• Henry A. Dillon Jr., 50, a politically connected city prosecutor assigned to Municipal Court, is serving a life sentence for violating the civil rights of women he raped. He is confined at a federal maximum-security prison in Tucson, Ariz. The case against Dillon was initiated by retired NOPD detective Anthony Radosti, vice president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission, who turned his findings over to the FBI. Dillon “beat” previous rape allegations investigated by the state Attorney General’s Office then returned to work as a city lawyer, engaging in petty corrupt acts.
• Former Democratic Governor Edwin W. Edwards, who Letten prosecuted personally, turned 80 inside the federal prison camp in Oakdale, La. “In the end he was revealed to be not the ‘populist’ and reformer he had claimed to be – but an elitist, a fraud and a common thief who had subordinated the good of the people he served to his own greed,” Letten said of Edwards in a recent speech on corruption in the Czech Republic.
Former Gov. Dave Treen is lobbying for a pardon for old political rival, arguing his sentence is excessive for man of his age. Edwards is not scheduled for release until July 2011.
One case still in the works, though there has been no final action:
• St. Tammany Parish Councilman Joseph Impastato – the first public official indicted on federal public corruption charges after Katrina – is awaiting trial this fall. He pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, extortion, attempted money laundering and solicitation of illegal gratuities in connection with hurricane debris removal. — A.J.