Stephanie Grace: Court case gets metaphysical

Court proceedings often resemble morality plays. That’s particularly true of criminal sentencing hearings, which are typically less about guilt or innocence than crime and punishment.

Wednesday’s sentencing in a New Orleans courtroom for onetime state Wildlife and FisheriesCcommissioner Henry Mouton, who confessed to accepting bribes, was something else entirely.

A clearly angry U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman did have plenty to say about Mouton’s case, a small piece of former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s sprawling pursuit of the owners of the politically connected River Birch landfill. Feldman’s problem was that pretty much everyone involved in the tale is, to some extent, a villain.

To make a very long story short: Mouton admitted two years ago that he’d taken money from an unnamed River Birch official, clearly either Fred Heebe or Jim Ward, in exchange for trashing the landfill’s rivals on official letterhead. But the feds’ effort to use Mouton and other cooperating witnesses to nail down a widespread pattern of influence peddling collapsed when lawyers for the firm unmasked several high-profile members of Letten’s office as anonymous commenters on nola.com. The scandal led to Letten’s resignation and a rare public abandonment of the case by the Justice Department.

So sure, Feldman issued the usual lecture about how Mouton is just the latest on a lengthy list of Louisiana officials who betrayed the public trust, “disgracefully dishonored” the sacred tenets of public service and “sold his office to the highest bidder” for more than $463,000, which Feldman noted is on the higher end of the normal scale in these cases.

But he was just as hard on the government, which he repeatedly tagged for prosecutorial misconduct, government abuse, and an overall pattern of behavior that “troubles me greatly.” He showed particular pique over the Justice Department’s refusal to share its internal findings on Letten’s operation with probation officials, which he said affected their ability to make a proper sentencing recommendation and “help me do my job.”

Heebe and Ward didn’t escape indirect condemnation either. If Mouton accepted bribes, as Feldman repeatedly noted that “he says he did,” then somebody had to have paid them.

At times, the hearing veered so far off the normal script that it took on the trappings of a philosophy class.

Mouton pleaded to conspiracy, an expansive charge that’s designed to cast a wide circle and link far-flung people and actions. But what happens when possible co-conspirators are never charged, let alone convicted? Is it even possible to have a conspiracy of one, the lawyers debated? At one point Feldman sat back and deemed the whole conversation “pretty metaphysical.”

In one sense, the hearing ended the usual way, with Mouton apologizing for what he’d done, taking full responsibility and throwing himself on the court’s mercy.

Yet while others in his shoes have faced public shame, the scene in the courtroom suggested that Mouton’s support network remains intact. Those in attendance included friends from his days in Gov. Mike Foster’s administration and establishment figures such as shipbuilder and major political donor Boysie Bollinger.

In allowing Mouton to avoid prison time and instead serve six months home confinement and three years probation, Feldman cited typical factors such as his lack of a criminal record, good behavior since pleading guilty, low likelihood of recidivism and a record of community service on causes such as diabetes research and on behalf of veterans. But he also chalked up his decision to the “oddness of the case.”

The prosecution’s now-final tally indicates just how odd it all was. The case has now essentially ended with three peripheral players — but not one central figure — admitting guilt and paying a price. In addition to Mouton, Hank Ton, owner of an oilfield services firm, pleaded guilty to tax charges and got probation in a separate prosecution involving River Birch chief financial officer Dominick Fazzio. Fazzio’s brother-in-law, Mark Titus, is serving prison time after pleading in a scheme to loot a construction company. Yet Fazzio himself, although prosecutors clearly hoped he would feel pressured to flip and help convict his bosses, remains in the clear, as do Heebe and Ward.

So do Mouton, Ton and Titus deserve sympathy for their predicament as well as scorn for their illegal actions? Clearly some people think so, at least in Mouton’s case.

But maybe everyone, not just Judge Feldman, can agree on this: Justice isn’t supposed to be so complicated.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.