Dennis Persica: U.S. Attorney scandal in NOLA still being felt

In my Dec. 6 column about the online-commenting scandal inside the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Orleans, I said that things were spinning out of control like a Shakespearian tragedy, pulling more and more people into a spiral of doom. Later that same day, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten resigned.

Was his resignation a reaction to the column? Well, no; but a columnist can dream, can’t he?

Ever since that day, that tragic spiral has continued to pull people into its vortex. A week after Letten’s resignation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Kennedy withdrew from an embezzlement case related to the River Birch landfill probe.

A defense attorney claimed Kennedy knew some of his colleagues had been posting comments on a local news site about cases they had been investigating, including River Birch. Kennedy denied that but took himself off the case anyway.

The spiral of doom had still not ended, and earlier this month it blew away the very federal investigation that lay at the root of the scandal.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Helen “Ginger” Berrigan granted a motion by federal prosecutors asking that charges against River Birch executive Dominick Fazzio and his brother-in-law Mark Titus be dismissed.

The Justice Department also notified landfill owners Fred Heebe and Jim Ward that they would not face criminal charges and that the four-year federal investigation of River Birch was over.

The wreckage and devastation left in the path of that legal cyclone is mind-boggling. Two assistant U.S. Attorneys, Jan Mann and Sal Perricone, left the office under fire last year. Letten’s later resignation was probably one of the less-significant moments in all this.

After all, U.S. Attorneys are replaced all the time, since they serve at the pleasure of the president.

Letten managed to survive after the presidency went from Republican to Democratic hands in 2009, but when President Barack Obama won re-election last year the air was rife with speculation that Letten’s time was over.

Obama and Louisiana Democrats had benefited from the halo effect of letting a Republican appointee continue to root out corruption, the thinking went, but maybe now it was time to let a Democrat hold the office.

The decision on Letten’s fate was taken out of the president’s hands, however, when Letten quit.

Still, his resignation pales in significance to the complete collapse of a federal investigation, one in which other guilty pleas had already been obtained.

The demise of the River Birch probe shows what a deep-pocketed defendant can do. That’s not to imply that Heebe and Ward are guilty; under the law, of course, we assume their innocence.

If we look at it as disinterested spectators, we have to marvel at what they did.

Who else would have thought to spend money to hire a textual analyst to compare online comments by people who do not use their real names to legal documents filed by those same people with their real names attached?

Once armed with that analysis, Heebe’s legal team rolled that big ball down the alley, violently scattering the pins at the other end. I think some of those pins are still rattling around back there.

Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, for example, has to be looking at this as an interested spectator, wondering what it holds for his indictment and trial.

Will he benefit from a reverse halo effect in which anything the feds do in his case automatically and immediately becomes suspect?

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.