James Gill: Hearing to be an earful

Who do you root for — federal prosecutors or a public official who took almost half a million in bribes?

Once upon a time in New Orleans, that would have been an easy call, but it’s pretty much a toss-up these days. U.S. Judge Martin Feldman was obliged to split it down the middle when Henry Mouton came up for sentencing last week.

The feds wanted Feldman to give Mouton four years, one year less than the maximum stipulated in the deal he signed in 2011 when he pleaded guilty to taking bribes from Fred Heebe. Mouton was cast as a star witness in the great garbage caper, although he never did take the stand.

That was no fault of his. The case collapsed amid revelations of prosecutorial dirty tricks, and the government announced that its principal targets, Heebe and Jim Ward, owners of the River Birch landfill, would never face charges. How many millions were squandered on the years-long flop is not a question that will cause any fed to lose sleep.

That debacle left Mouton to reflect that it doesn’t take two to tango after all. He is guilty of accepting bribes that nobody will ever be accused of paying. Thus, in the eyes of the law, money that was clean when it left Heebe’s hands was dirty by the time it reached Mouton’s. The notion is so nuts that Feldman resorted to strong language, terming it “metaphysical.”

Do not feel sorry for Mouton, however, because he could have fared a great deal worse. It is clear from his plea bargain that, by admitting bribery, he escaped prosecution for tax offenses. Feldman, moreover, rejected the government’s call for prison time. Mouton got six months of house arrest, followed by three years of probation, and was fined $100,000.

Even that might seem harsh in light of Feldman’s observation that “this court has been given no just or fair reason why Henry Mouton has been pursued, although the government’s general investigation has been acknowledged to have been abandoned.” But, almost in the same breath, Feldman rejected any notion that Mouton was the victim of gratuitous persecution. Mouton “disgracefully dishonored the name of public service” with his “terrible” conduct, Feldman said. That seems a fair enough reason to pursue him.

This was evidently an ambivalent day all round. Feldman seemed as miffed by “prosecutorial misconduct and government abuse” as by the crime for which Mouton was appearing before him.

This was not a major betrayal of the public trust, however, because Mouton did not have much public trust to betray. As a member ot the state Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, he was definitely tinpot league, and poor value for a $500,000 sweetener.

Mouton did write letters on his official letterhead to various public bodlies badmouthing River Birch’s competitors, but landfills are none of the Wildlife Commission’s business and nobody appears to have paid any attention. Heebe started paying Mouton long before he was appointed to the commission, and continued after he left it, moreover. This was a bribery scheme that verged on the metaphysical.

The public may never know whether the government had much evidence to support its theory that River Birch was out to monopolize the garbage business the old-fashioned way, because, save for Mouton, no government corruption had been publicly established before the investigation was aborted, while top prosecutors got the ax.

But the public is surely entitled to know the results of investigations conducted after sleuths hired by Heebe proved that prosecutors Sal Perricone and Jan Mann were responsible for hundreds of highly prejudicial online comments posted under aliases. Those monkeyshines cost them, and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, their jobs, but the government has refused to produce the reports.

Feldman figured that, in order to make a sentencing recommendation for Mouton, the probation office should have access to one of them, authored by John Horn, a prosecutor brought in from Atlanta. But the Justice Department refused, and sent a fall guy to court.

No way was the defendant going to be the only one to get an earful at this sentencing hearing.

James Gill can be contacted at jgill@theadvocate.com.