Federal prosecutor demoted for online comments

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — U.S. Attorney Jim Letten has demoted his top assistant prosecutor for posting anonymous comments on a newspaper website about a South Louisiana landfill owner who is being investigated by federal agencies.

River Birch landfill owner Fred Heebe sued Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Maselli Mann last week, saying she had defamed him in the comments on NOLA.com, the website of The Times-Picayune.

Letten confirmed in a written statement that Mann posted the comments. She remains an assistant U.S. attorney, but she was removed from two supervisory positions: first assistant and chief of the criminal division.

Heebe’s attorney, Kyle Schonekas, declined to comment.

Letten said he has been in touch with Justice Department officials in Washington since he learned about Heebe’s allegations.

“Because this matter is now under review by the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., the release of any additional information by my office would not be appropriate,” he wrote.

Mann is the second federal prosecutor in New Orleans to get in trouble for posting online comments about Heebe. Sal Perricone resigned in March after acknowledging he used the name “Henry L. Mencken1951” for Nola.com posts criticizing judges, politicians and cases.

Heebe has not been charged with a crime, but River Birch CFO Dominick Fazzio is charged with plotting to defraud a construction management company.

A former Louisiana wildlife official pleaded guilty last year to charges he took more than $463,000 in payoffs from a landfill company owner’s businesses as a reward for work in trying to keep a rival landfill closed. The company owner is not identified, but former state Wildlife and Fisheries Commissioner Henry Mouton touted River Birch.

Heebe’s lawsuit, filed in state court, accused Mann of posting under the name “eweman.” It said both “Mencken” and “eweman” showed interest in the U.S. attorney’s office’s investigation into River Birch Inc., a landfill company co-owned by Heebe.

“And, like certain of ‘Mencken’s comments, at least two of ‘eweman’s’ comments about Mr. Heebe were libelous and defamatory,” the suit said.

Letten removed his office from a federal investigation of Heebe’s landfill in April after Perricone admitted his online postings.

“Significantly, all activity on the ‘eweman’ account ceased abruptly after the unmasking of Perricone,” Heebe’s lawsuit said.

It said Mann and “eweman” both put unnecessary spaces ahead of punctuation marks and disdained former U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan and criminal defense attorney Arthur “Buddy” Lemann III.

“One post contains an obscure slang term — ‘fender lizard’ — that Ms. Mann is known to use in conversation,” it said.

The lawsuit said “eweman” libeled Heebe by saying he had paid a local radio personality for favorable on-air comments and by comparing him to a restaurant owner who allegedly had promised to do business with a parish judge’s seafood company in exchange for favorable rulings in a child custody case.

The online postings have been unusual embarrassments for Letten, a popular prosecutor who has won corruption convictions against public officials from cities and school systems to former Gov. Edwin Edwards. He has won support from members of both parties and U.S. Attorney under Republican and Democratic administrations.