U.S. attorney promises to fight violent crime and public corruption

Polite speaks at annual N.O. Chamber of Commerce meeting

In what amounted to his first stump speech since taking office in September, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite Jr. on Wednesday pledged to bring the full resources of the federal government to bear on New Orleans’ violent crime problem, without diminishing his office’s long-standing focus on public corruption.

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred people at the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting, Polite departed a bit from the law-and-order themes that his predecessor, longtime U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, typically struck at such events.

Polite, for example, challenged leaders of the business community to consider hiring ex-convicts, noting Louisiana’s highest-in-the-country incarceration rate and saying the region will never be able to arrest its way out of its crime problem.

He asked employers to consider various factors when convicts — whom he called “returning citizens” — apply for jobs, such as how long ago their conviction occurred and whether the person has taken steps to rehabilitate himself. He also spoke approvingly of measures taken by other generally conservative states, such as Texas, to reform their sentencing laws to reduce incarceration rates.

“When we are successful, our local business community, similar to our charter school efforts, will become a national benchmark showing the rest of the country how we are successfully returning ex-offenders from prison, reintegrating them back into our communities and reforming them into law-abiding, tax-paying citizens,” Polite said.

Polite, who was nominated for his post by President Barack Obama at the request of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is the first Democrat to be named U.S attorney for Louisiana’s Eastern District since Eddie Jordan was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1992. He succeeds Letten, a Republican, but a career prosecutor who won the office’s top job almost by default when the candidacies of other GOP nominees crashed and burned. In a break with usual practice, Letten, despite his party affiliation, then was retained after Obama became president in 2009.

Letten resigned under pressure a year ago this week, the victim of an online-commenting scandal that continues to dog the office. Polite referenced the brouhaha obliquely, mentioning “fallout from some of the problems of the past administration.”

On Sept. 20, Polite’s first day in office, came perhaps the biggest blow to result from the scandal: A federal judge threw out the guilty verdicts against five former New Orleans police officers in the Danziger Bridge shootings and cover-up — a case that Polite called the “most significant civil-rights jury decision in our district’s history.”

Polite’s first weeks also saw a government shutdown that he said hobbled the office temporarily. However, he said the office is now “moving forward, prepared to reclaim its position of ensuring that justice reaches every resident in southeast Louisiana.”

Echoing themes he has sounded since being nominated for the post, Polite underscored that, in his view, violent crime is “the most pressing problem in our community.” He recited a series of grim statistics, including the 193 murders in New Orleans last year — a murder rate roughly eight times the national average.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is doing its part to stem the tide, Polite said, by joining with local law enforcement to form the Multi-Agency Gang Unit. That unit, which predates his tenure, has thus far indicted 74 alleged members of seven gangs — people “who previously terrorized our city,” Polite said — on state or federal charges. “There are more to come,” he said.

Polite’s promise to train his office’s attention on violent crime has led some — notably U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La. — to fret publicly that the office will de-emphasize public-corruption cases. But Polite promised that won’t happen.

He said he has created a “stand-alone public integrity unit” that “will increase the efficiency, frequency and effectiveness of our prosecution of corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials.” He did not elaborate.

Corrupt officials, he pledged, will get no mercy from him.

“What I hear over and over is that corruption is a way of life in south Louisiana, and it will never change,” Polite said, adding that such attitudes dissuade “the best and the brightest” from entering public service. “I fundamentally reject that self-hating notion. I take it as a personal affront,” he said.