“Ken Polite has received just tremendous support from a broad cross-section of people, and I appreciate Sen. (David) Vitter’s support.” U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. attorney nominee for the New Orleans area, Kenneth Polite Jr., is telling some members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation that he plans to focus the office best known for rooting out political corruption, on fighting street violence and gang activities.
The 37-year-old Polite is saying the Eastern District of Louisiana office won’t forsake corruption prosecutions, but that work will be balanced with addressing crime in a city that has consistently ranked in the top three nationally for per capita murder rates.
If approved by the U.S. Senate, Polite would replace Jim Letten, who was known for successful prosecutions of elected officials but resigned after allegations of wrongdoing among his subordinates. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he would not block Polite’s Senate confirmation process but expressed some hesitation, noting that he preferred other potential candidates.
“I remain concerned that that office really needs a more seasoned leader and supervisor to immediately stabilize it after its scandals and that Ken’s focus on street crime will unintentionally take focus away from battling political corruption,” Vitter said. “I hope his service proves otherwise.”
Polite is waiting on the scheduling of his confirmation hearing. He indicated he will not publicly discuss the matter while the process is pending.
But U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, who is vocally backing Polite, said he is glad Polite told him and others that he wants to do more to fight street violence, while also prosecuting public corruption and civil rights violations.
“You can do both,” Richmond said. “I’m sure Ken Polite can walk and chew gum at the same time. … All of these things are necessary in having a peaceful metropolitan area.”
Richmond also criticized Vitter’s remarks.
“The last time I checked, public corruption didn’t kill a damn person in the city of New Orleans,” Richmond said. “Having 200-plus murders is absolutely unnecessary. And if the senator doesn’t have that concern, then that’s his problem.”
New Orleans is suffering from a “murder epidemic” that needs greater attention, he said, even if improvements are being made in the law enforcement agencies.
“We’re burying infants … Sen. Vitter doesn’t know the families of the people going to these funerals,” Richmond said, adding that he has attended many.
Part of the issue for Polite is that he would follow former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who had many Democratic supporters. Letten was the nation’s longest-serving U.S. attorney as a Republican-appointed holdover under President Barack Obama.
Christopher Bowman, an Orleans Parish assistant district attorney and spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, said the U.S. attorney’s office has proven very helpful in recent years.
“Where we’re doing the most work is the racketeering — taking down those street gangs,” Bowman said. “They have been an incredible asset in terms of their assistance in prosecuting these street crimes.”
Letten’s legend as a champion of attacking public corruption began to grow when he won a racketeering conviction against former Gov. Edwin Edwards in 2000 while he was still an assistant U.S. attorney. Letten’s tenure led to convictions against former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, former New Orleans mayoral contender and City Councilman Oliver Thomas, family members of former U.S Rep. William Jefferson, as well as several corrupted judges, killer police officers and post-Hurricane Katrina scams artists.
But Letten’s time ended when he resigned in December after controversies developed concerning two of his top prosecutors — Sal Perricone and Jan Mann — anonymously criticizing judges online and posting comments about specific cases.
Polite practices business litigation, appellate advocacy, government investigations and white-collar criminal defense at the Liskow & Lewis law firm in New Orleans.
Prior to joining Liskow & Lewis, Polite served as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York, where he served as lead counsel in investigations and prosecutions involving corruption and white-collar charges, such as bribery, extortion and money laundering.
He was born to teenage parents and raised, early on, in the Calliope and Lafitte housing projects of New Orleans and then in the Lower 9th Ward. He went on to become the first African-American valedictorian of De La Salle High School in New Orleans before going to Harvard University.
The 13 sheriffs in the Eastern District of Louisiana wrote a letter to Obama in support of Polite, including Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman and St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu made Polite her sole recommendation to Obama, who then made the nomination official at the end of June.
Landrieu said she has had several conversations with Polite and is confident he will not emphasize prosecuting street violence at the expense of anything else. Landrieu said she did not see Vitter’s remarks about Polite, except that he decided against blocking the confirmation process.
“Ken Polite has received just tremendous support from a broad cross-section of people, and I appreciate Sen. Vitter’s support,” Landrieu said.
“I’m sure that he’s going to maintain a focus not only on violent criminal aspects that are plaguing our community, but also on the political corruption that’s been a plague as well,” she said. “I’m sure he’ll be very balanced.
“I’m just confident that he’s going to do a fabulous job and that is the job — it’s to focus on corruption and to help on the criminal front. There’s no community in America that’s really suffered from both like New Orleans has and other parts of Louisiana. So I just don’t think this is a point of disagreement.”
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said he has not yet developed a relationship with Polite. Scalise said he is “very adamant” in maintaining that Letten was a “big loss” for the region because of his public corruption efforts.
But Scalise said he has not received any “indication” that Polite would diminish such efforts.
“I just encourage him to remain extremely vigilant,” Scalise said, adding that it is vital that a person can confidentially report a corruption issue and “be confident it’ll be aggressively pursued.”