Ceremony spotlights new U.S. attorney’s objectives

Dignitaries attend formal oath of office for new U.S. attorney

Roughly 10 weeks after he began serving as U.S. attorney in New Orleans, Kenneth Polite Jr. took the oath of office again Thursday in an elaborate investiture ceremony at which he was feted by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Sen. Mary Landrieu and a roomful of other civic heavyweights.

The ceremony, at Cohen College Prep High School, had the feel of a political coming-out party for Polite, 37, who was relatively little known in New Orleans until ascending to one of the region’s most powerful and coveted posts.

Before returning to his hometown three years ago, Polite was working at a private law firm in New York at Skadden, Arps, and also as a federal prosecutor in New York’s high-profile Southern District.

A good portion of Thursday’s program was devoted to spotlighting Polite’s remarkable résumé: Born and raised in the Lower 9th Ward, son of a longtime New Orleans police officer, valedictorian and senior class president at De La Salle High School, honors graduate of Harvard University and Georgetown Law Center.

After recounting the litany of honors he earned in high school, Peggy St. John, De La Salle’s principal, challenged the students present to follow Polite’s example, and then warned them it wouldn’t be easy. “In the 32 years I’ve been teaching, Kenneth is one of the most incredible young men to ever walk the halls of De La Salle,” she said.

The event’s overarching theme, sounded by speaker after speaker, was that education is the pathway to success. Polite said he chose Cohen as the venue because it is a once-failing school that is trying to reinvent itself. At his urging, student leaders from high schools across the region were invited to the ceremony, and he estimated that at least 30 schools were represented.

Polite, meanwhile, challenged the adults in the room to “step outside your comfort zone” by volunteering in schools, after-school programs or churches, “and make a difference in the lives of our young people.”

“Especially,” he added, “in the lives of young African-American males, many of whom are at that crossroads in life.”

As he also did in a well-attended speech Wednesday before the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, Polite deplored the nation’s high incarceration rate, and Louisiana’s in particular, and said crime can’t be solved through arrests.

More than half the inmates in federal prisons lack high-school degrees, and the rate is roughly 70 percent in local prisons, he said. Reducing the number of high-school dropouts by just 5 percentage points, he said, would have a huge impact on the crime rate and save hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We need to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline,” he said. “Let’s trade prison suits for a cap and gown.”

While Polite has kept a low profile during his first couple of months in his new post, he suggested that could change, saying he plans to heed Holder’s advice to get out from behind a desk as frequently as possible to “advocate for justice.”

Polite’s investiture came almost a year to the day after his predecessor, longtime U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, resigned under the cloud of an online-commenting scandal that also took down two of his top lieutenants. Letten attended Thursday’s ceremony and shook hands with Polite.

None of the speakers made any reference to the scandal, which helped torpedo a major corruption probe and led a judge to order a new trial for five New Orleans police officers convicted of shooting civilians on the Danziger Bridge days after Hurricane Katrina and then accused in a wide-ranging cover-up.

Letten, a Republican, had been kept in the U.S. attorney’s post by President Barack Obama after his election in 2008 — a departure from standard practice that reflected the career prosecutor’s widespread popularity and low-key political background. Perhaps because of those factors, Letten had also enjoyed the support of Landrieu, Louisiana’s senior Democrat.

After Letten’s resignation, Landrieu submitted Polite’s name alone for President Barack Obama’s consideration. She did so, she said, because “I could not have found a more qualified, a more competent, more enthusiastic young leader for this particular position at this particular time.”

Holder told the audience that Polite is “uniquely qualified” and will be “relentless in his pursuit of justice.”

While Polite’s nomination hit few snags, his relative youth did raise some eyebrows among legal observers, as most of the people he now supervises are older than he is.

At a couple of points in Thursday’s ceremony, Polite took aim at the notion that youth is a drawback. He quoted a passage from the book of Isaiah: “A child shall lead them.”

The program for the ceremony featured pictures of a backpack-toting John Lewis — now a congressman from Georgia — as a young civil-rights leader during the 1960s.

“He was only 25 and yet unquestionably a leader,” Polite said, noting that Lewis was the youngest person invited to speak during the 1963 March on Washington. Polite said he always fixates on Lewis’ backpack, a symbol both of youth and of the desire to learn.

And he told a more recent story about his daughter’s asking if she could take up tennis or football and quit soccer, at which she excelled.

Polite said he discouraged her, but his daughter — “with the wisdom of youth” — argued that she might be better at one of the other sports. She was fearless — and right, he said.

“To be young at heart means you have a will to learn,” Polite said, going on to promise that “as U.S. attorney, I will always be willing to learn.”