New Orleans — Local officials praised U.S. Attorney Jim Letten for his aggressive pursuit of public corruption, with many calling his resignation Thursday a loss.
But they are also looking ahead to who will replace him after an 11-year tenure that bridged two presidential administrations.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La, who supported keeping Letten four years ago when President Barack Obama took office, stated Thursday that she plans to send a “short list” of potential replacements in the “coming weeks” after consulting with southeastern Louisiana leaders and the legal community.
While she declined an interview request, Landrieu said in a prepared statement that she supports the selection of Dana J. Boente of Virginia as Letten’s interim replacement and John A. Horn of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, who will be responsible for getting to the bottom of the recent controversy within the Eastern District of Louisiana office and maintaining compliance in its cases.
“The people of the Eastern District expect and deserve an open and efficient process for determining their next U.S. attorney,” Landrieu stated, “and I look forward to working with Attorney General (Eric) Holder and the entire community to find the most qualified individual for the post.”
Landrieu acknowledged recent controversies in Letten’s office that led to his resignation but also praised his service.
“While the recent revelations of wrongdoing within his office are indeed troubling, his record of rooting out public corruption is to be commended,” she added.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who was one of Letten’s staunchest public supporters until recently, is already suggesting new names for the next U.S. attorney, including New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and New Orleans attorney and Jones Walker partner Pauline Hardin.
Vitter declined to be interviewed but responded by email.
“We need a very qualified, seasoned prosecutor like Leon Cannizzaro or Pauline Hardin as our new U.S. attorney at this critical time, not a typical political appointee or someone with modest prosecutorial experience,” he said.
But Vitter also expressed sadness over Letten’s departure.
“I’m really saddened by this news because Jim has done such a terrific job,” Vitter added. “His work has really turned the tide against public corruption in Louisiana.”
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, was the most publicly critical member of the Louisiana congressional delegation about the slow pace of the investigation into Letten’s office. In a November letter to Holder, Richmond wrote that he was “terribly distressed” about the slow pace and “possible major oversights” in the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility probe of the Eastern District.
On Thursday, Richmond still thanked Letten for his time as the longest-serving, current U.S. attorney in the nation.
“Moving forward, I am committed to working with the Department of Justice to address the recent allegations of misconduct,” Richmond added.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, also said he was sad about Letten’s departure and the loss of his “zero-tolerance policy against political corruption.”
“Jim Letten leaves behind very large shoes to fill, and it is incumbent upon President Obama to choose a replacement who shares Jim’s steadfast intolerance toward political corruption,” Scalise said.
Holder praised Letten and his efforts to root out police and political corruption in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina but also was quick to praise Letten’s interim replacement.
“Dana Boente is a veteran federal prosecutor with a record over the past 28 years of distinguished service to the Department of Justice,” Holder stated. “I am confident that he will lead the U.S. Attorney’s Office through this time of transition and ensure the office’s continued commitment to justice for the people of the Eastern District of Louisiana.”
Boente currently is first assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called Letten a friend and “a great partner for the city of New Orleans, as we fight public corruption and violent street crime.” He said that he looks forward to working with the president and Sen. Landrieu in ensuring that the next U.S. Attorney is an effective prosecutor.
Jefferson Parish President John Young, whose predecessor Aaron Broussard was prosecuted by Letten’s office, called Letten’s departure a blow.
“Crime and public corruption suck the economic lifeblood out of a community,” Young said. “No one is going to come and invest in a community where there is crime and public corruption.”
Young said he hopes whoever takes over for Letten maintains his zeal, because New Orleans and Jefferson Parish can’t afford to take a step backwards.
“It is a serious loss. He did a tremendous job combating crime and public corruption,” Young said. “That office is bigger than one person or any group of people.”
New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas cited Jim Letten as one of the reasons he decided to accept the job in New Orleans, adding that one consideration was who his partners in law enforcement would be.
“Jim has been a true ally of this police department. He’s worked with us to achieve some great things, and he’ll be missed,” Serpas said.