Stephanie Grace: Judges cast skeptical eye on U.S. Attorney’s Office

Of the many, many corrupt political insiders who’ve passed through the federal courthouse in New Orleans, no one tried harder to curry favor than Stan “Pampy” Barre.

Barre, who was accused of conspiring to skim $1.1 million off a city energy-saving contract, waited until the eve of his trial to join Team USA. But once he pleaded to a reduced charge and started helping then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s prosecutors, he went all out. Barre secretly recorded the incriminating conversation with Oliver Thomas that forced the city councilman to fess up to accepting bribes. He also provided dirt on a school board member’s husband, as well as on his patron, ex-mayor Marc Morial, although neither tip produced charges.

But when the time came for Barre to learn his fate — and, he hoped, collect his reward — Judge Carl Barbier bristled at prosecutors’ pleas for leniency. Barbier said the harm Barre did outweighed the “significant and substantial” aid that First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann said he provided. Rather than issue a lean three-year sentence, Barbier lambasted Barre for undermining the public trust and sent him away for five.

That was 2008, years before Mann and her colleague Sal Perricone were caught posting inappropriate Internet comments in a scandal that prompted cries of prosecutorial misconduct, tainted the office’s squeaky clean image and set off a chain of events that led to Letten’s resignation. So it’s a little surprising to hear some courthouse regulars say they now detect a greater degree of judicial wariness toward the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Those insiders point to a couple of dramatic recent slapdowns from the bench. Judge Kurt Engelhardt rejected a delay in sentencing and a light punishment for John Sens, a former Orleans Parish sheriff’s official who admitted to a bid-rigging scheme. Engelhardt voiced deep frustration over the feds’ habit of cutting favorable deals, and said “this scenario plays out so often that earning a (sentence-reduction letter) almost seems like a badge of honor, something to put on your résumé.”

On the same day, Judge Sarah Vance sentenced ex-Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle, who confessed in yet another corruption case and then wore a wire to help catch crooked contractor Aaron Bennett, to 15 months beyond the U.S. Attorney’s recommendation. Vance said she didn’t want to minimize the seriousness of Hingle’s offense, which was “far more corrosive than some minor official taking a kickback,” she said.

But as Barre’s run-in with Barbier suggests, even when Letten was at his most popular and his team at its most swaggering, a number of judges were already chafing at the lopsided deals prosecutors cut with some defendants in order to build cases against others and were reluctant to offer the double break of an easy sentence on top of a vastly reduced charge.

Barbier wasn’t the only “pissed off, fed-up judge” of that earlier era, to borrow Barre’s colorful language. Judge Lance Africk denied a co-defendant of former Sewerage & Water Board member Ben Edwards probation. Judge Jay Zainey upped the recommended sentence of another Edwards cohort. Vance gave Barre’s co-defendant six months instead of probation. Judge Martin Feldman went along with the feds’ request of just 18 months for Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms after she admitted accepting bribes from Mose Jefferson and wore a wire to snag him, but said he did so “with a profound sense of skepticism.”

Such decisions actually put these judges at odds with both prosecutors and defense attorneys. Deals grease the skids, lawyers on each side say, even if the ultimate punishment doesn’t always seem to rise to the level of the crime. Good and evil aside, the truth is that the justice system is often based on cold calculation. And indeed, alarm over the most recent spate of tougher talk from the bench came from both sides.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Chester said that without Hingle’s help the feds might not have gotten Bennett, who’s expected to be a key witness against indicted former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Failing to cut Hingle a break, he argued, would send the “wrong message” to potential government witnesses “that cooperation doesn’t get you any benefits” — although Vance disputed what she called that “theory of causation.”

Sens’ attorney Ralph Capitelli made similar arguments about Engelhardt’s stance toward his client, which he said could prove a “serious deterrent to law enforcement efforts.” Capitelli also represented Brooks-Simms, so he can be forgiven for worrying that such sweet deals might become more elusive.

Still, it’s easy to see why so many judges think they should be more elusive.

The Letten years were marked by tough talk and action, but also at times by palpable coziness with confessed crooks. These judges surely aren’t the only ones who think the important stuff sometimes got lost in the mix.

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