Gill: Polite takes over under cloud

Short of being christened Mr. Nice Guy, you couldn’t have a more disarming name than his. Who’s ever going to be rude to Mr. Polite?

Considering that Kenneth Polite is President Barack Obama’s choice for U.S. Attorney in New Orleans, your best guess might be Sen. David Vitter. But you’d only be half right. Vitter is indeed the only public official to question Polite’s credentials, but he promises not to block the confirmation. Vitter is not always so gentlemanly in his dealings with Democrats. Perhaps he has gone soft because he and Polite both graduated from De La Salle High School in New Orleans and from Harvard. Whatever, the job is Polite’s for sure.

Vitter at his softest can still be fairly abrasive, of course. When Polite told Louisiana congressmen his top priority would be nailing violent criminals, Vitter’s response was, “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.”

Well, it’s hardly unintentional. The recently departed U.S. Attorney Jim Letten made his name packing politicians off to the slammer, but the name is tarnished now and Polite needs his own shtick. His announcement that the thugs willl henceforth get top billing will surely be welcomed along the city’s bloody streets.

Political corruption will hardly be forgotten, but it is possible that some venal councilman will be overlooked because prosecutors are preoccupied with, say, a gang of murderous drug dealers. Vitter may not want to take that risk, but the public may.

Voters may wish to infer, from Vitter’s vocal displeasure at the change of emphasis, that he must be a shining example of official rectitude. They are no doubt welcome to do so.

If Polite is not inclined to emulate Letten, he won’t wish either to follow in the footsteps of the last Democrat appointed U.S. Attorney in New Orleans, Eddie Jordan. When Jordan took over almost 20 years ago, he too declared an intention to concentrate on street criminals, but, as it turned out, his administration’s main claim to fame was convicting the doyen of corrupt politicians, former Gov. Edwin Edwards.

Credit for that, however, went largely to Letten, then an assistant U.S. Attorney, who led the prosecution team while Jordan sat silently in the courtroom. Indeed, Jordan evidently had plenty of accomplished assistants, for his own ineptitude went undetected until he later got elected District Attorney in New Orleans and had to be forced out for fear criminals would soon be running the entire city.

Although Polite and Jordan both started out vowing to rid the streets of hoodlums, the similarity apparently ends there. Polite, after stints as a federal prosecutor in New York, and a litigator with a major New Orleans law firm, must have more of a clue. Vitter may disapprove, but, at the age of 37, Polite could not be much more “seasoned.”

As for the need to “stabilize” the office after its “scandals,” that might be easier if the Justice Department ever got around to establishing who violated what laws or ethical canons on Letten’s watch.

Letten initiated an Office of Professional Responsibility investigation in March of 2012 when a senior assistant, Sal Perricone, admitted he had been holding forth about pending cases under various on-line aliases. When Letten’s top aide, Jan Mann, after conducting a sham investigation of Perricone’s postings, was found to have been guilty of similar stunts, Judge Kurt Engelhardt last November ordered a further inquiry.

An Atlanta fed was brought in to handle it, deadlines have come and gone but no findings have been announced. The OPR investigation appears to have been forgotten; Letten, Mann and Perricone are long gone.

Polite may wish they were also forgotten, for it would be hard enough to take over the U.S. Attorney’s office even if weren’t under a cloud. Letten may always be remembered as the scourge of crooked politicians, but whether he knew what was going on under his nose remains the big question.

Either way, what the wisenheimers wind up saying about Letten may be quite impolite.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.