James Gill: Feds messed with wrong guy

Just how big a mistake the feds made in messing with Fred Heebe is now becoming apparent.

Federal Judge Kurt Engelhardt, ordering a retrial for five New Orleans cops convicted in the Danziger Bridge bloodbath a few days after Katrina, lambasted proscutors for perversions of justice that would never have come to light but for Heebe.

Engelhardt’s ruling makes it clear that many more unnamed scoundrels lurk in the Justice Department, but what has already been established is disgrace enough for now.

Defense attorneys have always complained about prosecutors who trample on the constitutional rights of their targets and force them to take a plea rather than risk a trial. Who, after all, has the money and cojones to fight back against the government?

Heebe, that’s who.

After the feds spent several years investigating Heebe, lord of the landfill business, he not only whupped them on his own account but paved the way for a challenge in the Danziger case too.

The feds dropped their investigation of Heebe after he hired a linguistics expert to show that the style of pseudonymous and highly prejudicial online diatribes matched that of court motions filed by assistant U.S. Attorneys Sal Perricone and Jan Mann. They were duly out of a job, and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten quit soon thereafter to be appointed a dean at the Tulane Law School, presumably on the strength of his reputation as the straight-shooting scourge of corrupt politicians.

So much for that. Mann was unmasked a few months after Perricone but is quoted in Engelhardt’s opinion to the effect that she had “fessed up” to Letten. He nevertheless continued to portray Perricone as a lone wolf.

Engelhardt, meanwhile, ordered the U.S. Attorney’s Office to dig deeper. The report he received made no mention of Mann’s online stunts, but a whitewash was only to be expected. As Letten’s top aide, Mann authored it.

After Heebe outed Mann, an incandescent Engelhardt called for the Justice Department to appoint a special investigator, although he made it clear there was a mountain to climb before he could find grounds for granting the Danziger cops a retrial. The feds, meanwhile, sheepishly announced that Heebe, whom they had suspected of paying off politicians for garbage contracts, had no case to answer.

If judges are always loathe to overturn a jury verdicts, Engelhardt must have been especially reluctant in the Danzinger case. When officers, responding to a false report, swarmed on the bridge spraying bullets, they left two dead and four seriously wounded. A massive cover-up followed, with planted evidence, an imaginary witness and fake reports. The long and complex prosecution involved such huge expense for taxpayers, and such considerable anguish for victims and survivors, that Engelhardt wouldn’t do it all again if he had any choice.

It was obviously difficult for Engelhardt to secure all the facts he needed to make his decision, for prosecutors are just as keen as cops to cover up for their own. Not only were Letten and Mann less than forthcoming with Engelhardt, but the special investigator brought in from Atlanta by the Justice Department, John Horn, evidently proved less than tigerish.

Horn reported, for instance, that a Justice Department “employee” had posted online comments about the Danziger trial while it was going on, but suggested they were of little consequence. Only after considerable badgering from Engelhardt did Horn reveal that this harmless employee was in fact Karla Dobinski, a veteran Justice Department attorney in Washington. Dobinski, head of the team charged with protecting the rights of the accused in the Danziger case, “personally fanned the flames of those burning” for a conviction, Engelhardt wrote.

Either Horn was under orders not to dish too much dirt, or he is remarkably incurious for a professional sleuth, but Engelhardt notes that many of his questions — about other prosecutors who may have made online comments or released confidential information, for instance — went unanswered.

When Engelhardt nevertheless extracted enough information to conclude a retrial had to be granted, it must have dawned on prosecutors that they had messed with the wrong guy again.

James Gill can be reached at jgill@ theadvocate.com.