New Orleans radio host Tommy Tucker of WWL is at the forefront of probing a new prosecution scandal in the office of U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. For the second time this year, one of Letten's prosecutors has been implicated in a scheme to post comments in the city's major daily newspaper under a phony name disparaging suspects in crime probes.
Tucker, his WWL colleagues, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune are keeping up the pressure on Letten to describe why he failed to foster a more professional office environment during his tenure, which began in 2001 as a Bush appointee. President Obama retained him in 2009 at the recommendation of the state's two U.S. Senators, Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R).
As a guest commentator Nov. 9 on The Tommy Tucker Show, I shared my view that the disturbing situation fit a national pattern whereby the Justice Department whitewashes any abuses that arise. To probe such infractions, the DOJ uses its Office of Professional Responsibility. I noted the American Bar Association Journaldescribed the DOJ unit as "The Roach Motel" -- the place where "cases check in, but they don't check out."
Letten announced on Nov. 8 he was demoting his First Assistant U.S. Attorney, Jan Morris, and was referring her to the Justice Department's Office of Responsibility for investigation. Letten's actions followed a civil suit filed Nov. 2 by Fred Heebe, a landfill owner suspected in a corruption investigation. Heebe's suit cited forensic evidence to assert that Morris had made reader comments to the Times-Picayune critical of Heebe.
Letten declined to answer any questions on his probe of claims that his aide, Morris, used such "sock puppet" tactics early this year similar to those by another prosecutor, Sal Perricone, who resigned under pressure.
Perricone had been a senior federal prosecutor who confessed to authoring more than 500 anonymous web commentaries about civic affairs on the newspaper website, NOLA.com. Many of Perricone's harsh comments, made under the name "Henry L. Mencken1951," sought to shape public opinion in unprofessional ways about his own cases, colleagues, judges or defendants.
The suit filed this month claims that Morris, who is married to another prosecutor in Letten's office, Jim Mann, made reader comments under the sock puppet name of "Eweman." Letten had told a federal judge in June that neither he, nor his second-in-command, Jan Morris, knew about the anonymous postings.
Tucker has invited me twice this week to discuss the case. His show on the CBS affiliate WWL is broadcast at 50,000-watts through five Gulf states, and is available via Internet on archive.
On Nov. 5, Tucker told his audience that he admires Letten's career in general, but finds the repeated allegations of prosecution misconduct disturbing. Aside from the sock puppet claims, federal authorities allegedly hid evidence as they convicted four New Orleans policemen of covering up their wrongful killing of four Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005.
Tucker repeatedly emphasized that any guilt or innocence of the landfill owner, Heebe, is a separate matter from potential wrongdoing by authorities. Nonetheless, he received both a caller and a text message from listeners saying the public must rally around prosecutors. One of the critics claimed that a photo of the landfill owner, Heebe, suggested from his appearance that he might be guilty of wrongdoing, in part because the photo showed Heebe as wearing his hair longer than most businessmen.
I responded that many in the public feel that law enforcers must be given wide latititude to fight criminals, even though experts such as Three Felonies a Day author Harvey Silverglate have demonstrated that almost anyone could be targeted for a criminal offense if authorities are determined enough. The Justice Department, for example, charged a distinguished medical school professor and part-time county coroner, Dr. Cyril Wecht, with more than 40 felonies in 2006 for using his office fax for brief personal faxes during his 20 years in the post, for example. Therefore, I continued, it is up to those who care about justice to insist that criminal charges must be supported by solid evidence and fair procedures, including prosecutors who do not try to stir up public opinion by secret public relations tactics against suspects.
Tucker aptly noted that the 1981 movie, Absence of Malice, effectively dramatized such a situation. Actor Wilford Brimley portrayed a high-ranking Justice Department official committed to learning whether local federal prosecutors had been overzealous in leaking information about a crime suspect to a newspaper reporter, portrayed by Sally Field. Local prosecutors were convinced their tactics were justified because they wanted to smear a businessman, played by Paul Newman.
Such a powerful, truth-seeking Washington official is "the movies," and not necessarily the reality. The recent history of the Justice Department does not inspire confidence that its leadership is committed to investigating wrongdoing by its personnel, I continued. I cited two examples from close observation and research displayed frequently on this website.
One has been the Justice Department's long-running cover-up of massive irregularities in the prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. Obama Attorney General Eric Holder fired Tamarah Grimes, right, an experienced paralegal working on its trial team in Alabama, after she bravely stepped forward to alert superiors of irregularities in the case. Alabama legal commentator Roger Shuler and I have described the outrageous retribution against her in columns cited below.
U.W. Clemon of Alabama, chief federal judge of Alabama's nothern district, urged Holder in 2009 to investigate the Siegelman case, which Clemon described as the most unjust prosecution he had witnessed in nearly three decades on the federal bench. There is no indication that Justice Department's internal investigators interviewed any of the significant witnesses in prosecution of Siegelman, 67.
In September, Alabama's leading Democrat resumed his 2007 prison sentence in Oakdale, Louisiana to serve the remainder of a seven-year prison term imposed for the virtually unprecedented offense of reappointing to a state board a donor to a non-profit that Siegelman admired. Bush and Obama prosecutors called that bribery and sought heavy penalties. Siegelman's daughter, a New Orleans resident, has mounted a nationwide petition drive to obtain a presidential pardon. The petition, approaching 40,000 signatures, has received impassioned support from across the country, illustrating widespread revulsion at abusive prosecution tactics. See, for example, Article On Dana Siegelman Does Not Go Far Enough In Describing the Injustice Against Her Father.
Also, the "Roach Motel" article by the bar association Journal is based in significant part on the oversight of a major Mafia case by U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf, chief federal judge in Massachusetts. Earlier in Wolf's career, he had been a high-ranking Justice Department employee who, among other things, served as special assistant to Attorney General Edward Levi in founding the Office of Professional Responsibility in the late 1970s.
Wolf has emerged as a prominent critic of the OPR office in recent years. He has written at least three letters to the Justice Department urging its leaders, including Attorney Gen. Eric Holder, to do a better job investigating lawbreaking and ethics violations by federal personnel.
Observing irregularities in the Mafia prosecution, Wolf undertook on his own a judicial oversight hearing in the 1990s after he presided over the convictions and long prison sentences for the Mafia defendants, who included the leadership of the New England branch of the secret crime gang.
The judge's initiative has led also to murder charges alleging that former FBI informant James "Whitey" Bulger was involved in 19 murders, including the vicious, hands-on slaying of two youthful mistresses of a crime confederate.
I served as law clerk to Wolf at the beginning of the Mafia case, from 1990-91. These days, I generally try to keep my Washington-based legal reform work distinct from the judge's concerns. This is a controversial field, and the judge undertakes enough challenges on his own without any link to what I'm doing or saying.
But the specific overlap regarding the effectiveness of the Office of Professional Responsibility is too significant to ignore. An appendix below lists background on these cases to illustrate how New Orleans scandals fit into larger national patterns.
Jim Letten, the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Louisiana, is deflecting all further questions about the latest scandal in his office with the bromide that his superiors at the Justice Department are investigating. But that cannot be the end of public concern if those Justice Department superiors are infamous -- at least to insiders in the national legal community -- as cover-up artists.
Ultimately, these kinds of problems go far beyond the level of local prosecutors. Solutions must be at the White House level because it is the president who makes the relevant appointmentss and sets a standard on whether law enforcers must themselves obey the law.
For these reasons, I applaud those such as Tommy Tucker raising apt questions in the latest New Orleans scandal -- and I have sought to connect the dots nationally in my new book, Presidential Puppetry, to be announced more formally next week.