Stephanie Grace: Case highlights crossing of careers

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

If Fred Heebe, Jim Letten and Kurt Engelhardt had sat down for a cup of coffee a few years back, chances are that they would have had plenty to chitchat about.

The three major figures in the spectacular scandal surrounding the Eastern District federal courthouse in New Orleans once had quite a bit in common, from shared ambitions to overlapping political connections, even before their professional fates became so intertwined.

Heebe, a wealthy landfill owner and Republican fundraiser, was the original favorite for the U.S. attorney job, eventually became a target of the office’s investigative zeal, and ultimately not only escaped prosecution but brought down his potential accuser when his lawyers revealed that key players in the office were launching inappropriate anonymous broadsides online.

Letten, the career prosecutor who had the right party affiliation but not the political connections to make the first cut, got the job after Heebe’s approval stalled amid allegations of domestic abuse.

Letten went on to win the hearts and minds of politicians and voters alike, until Heebe’s counter assault forced his resignation last year.

That, it turned out, wasn’t the end of the story.

Last week, Engelhardt weighed in from the bench with a scathing ruling vacating the convictions of five former New Orleans police officers for shooting six unarmed civilians, two fatally, on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina.

Although the case was prosecuted by lawyers for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Engelhardt put his decision squarely on the “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct” in Letten’s office that Heebe had uncovered.

Back in 2001, before anyone could have predicted any of these strange events, Engelhardt, like Heebe and Letten, saw opportunity in the election of George W. Bush. His goal was not to be U.S. attorney but federal judge, a job he won with the all-out support of then-U.S. Rep. David Vitter, who counted Engelhardt as his personal lawyer and campaign treasurer.

Vitter, who would eventually support Letten’s appointment, also first backed Heebe for U.S. attorney, which was a bit of a surprise at a time.

For one thing, there were other qualified candidates in the mix, and Heebe’s biggest advocate was then-Gov. Mike Foster, with whom Vitter had an openly adversarial relationship. Vitter, a lawyer by trade, also didn’t seem the sort to back a candidate with little actual legal experience.

Vitter explained in 2001 that he thought Heebe’s background in business was just as important as his relatively scant legal experience, given that a big part of the job was managing the office.

At the time, I chalked up his argument to simple political expedience, but maybe he had a point. Letten did lose control over his operation, and Heebe sure knew how to go out and hire himself some good lawyers.

Even before Engelhardt weighed in last week, the botched criminal pursuit of Heebe and revelation of online comments by former top Letten deputies Sal Perricone and Jan Mann had done plenty to create unease over how justice was playing out down on Camp Street.

Engelhardt’s ruling directly addressed those concerns, but also, ironically, may wind up adding to them. Engelhardt based his decision to vacate the verdict largely on the argument that it was tainted by online postings — but he never made a direct connection, and he declined to hold a hearing to explore whether jurors were influenced.

Over the weekend, two jurors went public with their anger over Engelhardt’s decision to order a new trial.

In emotional interviews with The Advocate, they defended the work they and their fellow jurors had done, and insisted that they had all heeded the judge’s order not to read news coverage or commentary about the case. Both said they knew nothing of the offending comments and labeled Engelhardt’s supposition that they were influenced by anonymous online rants insulting.

As the dust settles, I suspect more attention will focus on the mismatch between offense and remedy.

Engelhardt not only used his 129-page ruling to lambaste prosecutors for weighing in on the Danziger trial, but also for making improper comments about other cases.

In one particularly harsh passage, Engelhardt castigated Perricone for seemingly revealing that former City Councilman James Carter had been the subject of a grand jury investigation, and for misrepresenting the circumstances when Engelhardt questioned him about the posting under oath.

That’s horribly unprofessional behavior on Perricone’s part, but again, not at all connected to Danziger.

The takeaway of all of this is that things around the courthouse clearly haven’t been working as they should. But there’s got to be a better way to fix them than this.

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