After being lauded for years as a vigilant watchman over Louisiana-style political dirty dealing, then slapped hard for wanton hubris among its top prosecutors, a shaken U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans received a somewhat unlikely new leader on Friday.
Kenneth Polite Jr., a 37-year-old product of the Lower 9th Ward, the Calliope public housing complex and Harvard University, took office as the first new U.S. attorney to lead the Camp Street office in a dozen years.
Polite, who was sworn in Friday morning, took the helm of an office struggling to regain public confidence in the wake of an online commenting scandal that sent his predecessor, Jim Letten, and three top deputies packing, and which continues to roil the local federal courts.
The U.S. Senate approved Polite’s nomination on Tuesday, shortly after U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt issued a bombshell order wiping out the convictions of five New Orleans police officers in the Danziger Bridge shootings and subsequent cover-up.
In his 129-page ruling, Engelhardt lambasted Letten’s office for the online postings of his former first assistant, Jan Mann, and prosecutor Sal Perricone. The judge called their actions “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct.”
In an interview this week, Polite steered clear of the topic, noting that the judge’s decision remains under review for possible appeal. But he made clear that restoring trust in the office is a top priority.
“I would hope the office is viewed as one that is still filled with very dedicated servants,” Polite said. “It certainly has had a cloud over it for a period of time as a result of some of these recent events. And it’s an office that I think is ready to move forward. It’s ready to make the work the priority again, rather than questions about its conduct.”
With interim U.S. Attorney Dana Boente filling in since Letten resigned in December, criminal prosecutions in the district have slowed, with a drop of about 15 percent in new cases, according to the federal court clerk’s office.
Part of that may be due to a reduction in staffing, with a hiring freeze in place because of federal government-wide sequestration, not to mention the departures of four top officials in the office.
For now, Polite said, his top goal is “to make sure we are maximizing the capacity of the people that we have there, to make sure the process of restoring full confidence in the office begins from day one, whether it’s with the judiciary or if it’s with the general public.”
Polite seems to recognize the size of the repair job that awaits him.
Engelhardt is not the only judge in the federal courthouse to call out the prosecutors’ office because of the Web-posting scandal. The office’s handling of the entire River Birch landfill probe — which spawned the online posting revelations after landfill magnate Fred Heebe outed Perricone and Mann for their online barbs — has raised the ire of at least two other judges in the building.
As a defense attorney, Polite represented Hendrikus “Hank” Ton, a peripheral player in the investigation who avoided jail time in May but was ordered to pay nearly $3.6 million after pleading guilty in a payroll fraud scheme.
Last week, another district judge, Martin Feldman, handed the last remaining River Birch defendant, Henry Mouton, a lenient sentence on a bribery plea while slamming the conduct of prosecutors.
The case was strange by any measure, with federal prosecutors ultimately ending their probe into Heebe and dropping charges against top targets Dominick Fazzio and Mark Titus.
Polite declined to discuss the case, or his views on how Letten’s office handled public corruption cases in general.
Since Letten left the office nine months ago, various defense attorneys and other critics have emerged to charge federal prosecutors under Letten with crossing the line in other ways, pursuing certain high-profile political targets with venomous zeal.
“I think we can all acknowledge that that was a highly unusual set of circumstances, a very unusual case that led to some fairly unique resolutions for some of those defendants,” Polite said of the River Birch case.
“I don’t really view that as being the model case for the way this office or any office has typically prosecuted public corruption.”
Polite’s diplomacy results in part from the requirements of sequestration. He can’t do much for now to implement his vision of bringing fresh blood into an office that has 53 attorneys and, compared with other U.S. attorneys’ offices, has seen low turnover.
“I think any office can benefit by bringing in an outside perspective. Certainly I think that’s what I hope to bring to bear, some different perspective,” Polite said.
But, he said, “I will not be able to bring in new hires on day one. I will not be able to bring in new leadership.”
Polite, a Catholic who is married to a physician, with two girls, was born to teenage parents and wound up, he said, living in various public housing buildings across the city. Yet he graduated as valedictorian from De La Salle High School, went to Harvard and then law school at Georgetown.
He said his interest in becoming a prosecutor was fueled when a half-brother was killed in New Orleans “as a result of retaliation.”
Polite applied for a job in New Orleans and was ready to take it in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck. He went to work instead as a prosecutor for three years in the busy U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, before focusing on white-collar criminal defense.
“There’s a lot about his life that was very different from mine. We grew up in different households,” Polite said of his slain sibling, whom he declined to name.
“His death really highlighted to me that if I or someone else had intervened at an earlier state, he could have literally been in the same position I was in. On the flip side, if I had not had the people intervening in my life, walking with me in my life, I could have been where he was.”
Polite, whose father is a veteran New Orleans cop, said he doesn’t aim for drastic change in the office, but that he wants more emphasis on violent crime, and in particular enforcing federal gun laws for felons.
Several U.S. attorneys’ offices have such programs, working with local police and prosecutors to take gun cases into federal courts, with hefty minimum sentences attached.
Some judges, though, chafe at such cases, arguing that they have no place in federal courtrooms.
According to statistics, Letten’s office prosecuted 40 weapons cases in 2012 and 29 in 2011, down from more than 100 five years ago.
“I certainly have an appreciation for the damage that violent crime can do,” Polite said. “For some time we’ve focused at the organizational level, trying to address gang activity, drug trafficking.
“I think there are more resources to be brought to bear specifically in terms of removing illegal guns off the streets of southeast Louisiana.”
Polite bristled slightly at concerns — raised this summer by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La. — that he would steer the office away from the kind of public corruption cases that were the hallmark of Letten’s 11 years in office.
Vitter, who ultimately agreed to back Polite’s nomination, also suggested that the office needed a more “seasoned leader” in the aftermath of scandal.
“I don’t know what that necessarily means,” Polite said.
He said he has no plans to ditch public corruption cases.
“They are really what I’ve done throughout my career as both a defense attorney and as a prosecutor, and so I know how to do those cases,” he said. “They can be real drains on resources. They can be difficult to bring to trial, but they are very important cases to be brought.
“We’re talking about altering the perception of this state, within itself and outside of it. In many ways this office has been the only watchdog in that area, ensuring public officials are towing the line. We’re the only game in town.”
Letten rarely shied away from TV cameras, and Polite said he won’t either, particularly as the office tries to rebuild its public image. In the months leading up to his confirmation, he spent a lot of time making the rounds, seeking advice from what he refers to as his “constituents,” including judges and defense attorneys.
Virginia Schlueter, the federal public defender who soon will leave the New Orleans office after 35 years, said she got a welcome invitation from Polite not long ago.
“I’ll tell you, I’ve never shared or broken bread with Jim Letten. And Ken Polite called and said, ‘I’d like to take you to lunch,’ ” Schlueter said.
“I love the fact he’s asking for suggestions to improve an office. He’s a very deep thinker. He’s looking at the big picture. I think Mr. Polite is looking to rethink the process.”
But just where he thinks the process needs reform remains uncertain.
For now, Polite is keeping his plans close to the vest. He tends to talk in vague terms, though he said he thinks the office has been inefficient and should bring more cases.
“I don’t necessarily view my priorities as a leader of this office as being drastically different from the interests and priorities of past administrations,” he said. “But I do come in with very different viewpoints.”
Former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg noted that in many ways, the office is dependent on the cases that the federal criminal justice “alphabet agencies” — the FBI, DEA, ICE — produce.
The U.S. attorney has some leeway in accepting or rejecting cases, shifting staff, setting priorities. But generally, Rosenberg said, the job is dictated by federal policy and circumstance.
“Frankly, the institutional dynamics tend to be more powerful than the individual’s personality or druthers,” he said.