Stephanie Grace: Mouton case breaks mold

When defense attorneys advise clients that it’s smart to go straight to the feds, plead guilty and tell everything they know before someone else does, those lawyers can point to plenty of examples.

Exhibit A might be the long list of defendants who got off easy by either testifying against their co-conspirators or by helping investigators amass enough evidence to secure additional pleas. Former New Orleans

Assessor Betty Jefferson, a key witness against ex-City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt and lucky winner of just 15 months of home confinement after she spent years looting public grants for the needy, tops this roster.

Tim Whitmer, the ex-Jefferson Parish chief administrative officer who clearly dished on his old boss, former Parish President Aaron Broussard, is there too. Whitmer walked away with an in-court handshake from former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and three years of probation.

Exhibit B could be a collection of cautionary tales about accused crooks who tried their luck at trial instead. Gill Pratt, for instance, faces more than seven years in prison — she remains free pending appeal — even though Jefferson was much more of a mastermind in the scheme than she was.

Then there’s the notorious case of onetime New Orleans tech contractor Mark St. Pierre, who went for the acquittal rather than admit he bribed ex-Mayor Ray Nagin’s former tech chief Greg Meffert. Meffert, who confessed to accepting gifts and cash from St. Pierre, spelled it all out at trial, and is expected to face less than half St. Pierre’s 17 1/2- year sentence.

If the convoluted story of former Henry Mouton is Exhibit C, lawyers trying to talk their clients into a plea might want to stop at B.

Mouton presents a cautionary tale of an entirely different sort.

When the onetime state Wildlife and Fisheries commissioner pleaded guilty to charges that he’d accepted bribes, it did more than reveal that the feds had trained their sights on his unnamed but easily identifiable benefactor, either River Birch landfill owner Fred Heebe or his partner Jim Ward.

It also positioned Mouton to face comparatively minor consequences. All investigators had to do was follow the trail he’d laid out, find some corroborating evidence and bring it all home.

That’s not what happened, of course.

The case veered off the rails when Heebe’s attorneys established that one of Letten’s lieutenants, Sal Perricone, had left a long trail of inappropriate and obnoxious anonymous online comments.

And it came to complete stop when Heebe’s team also showed that Jan Mann, Letten’s top assistant, had a similar habit.

When the dust settled, Perricone, Mann and Letten were out, a related ongoing case was dropped and Heebe had secured a rare federal assurance that he’s no longer a target.

It’s not all over for Mouton, though. His guilty plea stands, even though the person he claims paid him bribes was never charged, and he still awaits sentencing.

Mouton went to court this week and asked U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman for records that he hopes will show that his own case was “incurably infected” by the same prosecutorial abuse that torpedoed the larger case, as his attorney Mary Olive Pierson put it. Feldman declined to order the documents turned over, at least for now.

Mouton is far from the only Eastern District defendant to hope that the U.S. Attorney scandal might land him a get-out-of-jail-free card, but most are grasping at straws.

After all, it’s not like the office had never put together a solid case. Letten actually left office with a pocket full of politicians’ scalps.

Mouton may have a better chance than some, though, if only because of his direct involvement in the tainted case, which Feldman admitted raised concerns.

Still, it’s hard to convincingly argue that you were wrongfully convicted after admitting, under oath, that you did it.

And even if Mouton could plausibly argue the River Birch payments weren’t bribes, he’d still have a hard time explaining his failure to pay taxes on that income.

Strange as Mouton’s legal journey has been, it doesn’t mean that, by winning this particular race to the courthouse, he followed bad advice. It’s just that next time, maybe that advice should come with an asterisk.

Stephanie Grace’s email address is sgrace@theadvocate.com.