NEW ORLEANS - Jim Letten, the longest serving U.S. Attorney in the country, ended his accomplished run as top prosecutor Tuesday, his tenure derailed by the scandal over two trusted assistants who posted online comments about ongoing cases and criminal targets.
And Letten’s original plan to remain in the office for the gradual transition of interim replacement Dana Boente, on loan from his job as first assistant U.S. Attorney in Eastern Virginia, has also been cut short.
“I’m going to be available to speak to him, but I’m pretty much not going to be on site or engaged in the department after tomorrow,” Letten said in his final media interview late Monday.
In fact, even Letten’s final day showing Boente around the office was wrapped up quickly when Boente reportedly took lunch at his desk and told Letten he could handle things beyond that.
Before he departed, Letten shared a wide range of thoughts with Eyewitness News as he prepared to leave the Department of Justice after a 28-year career. But he could only dance around questions about Jan Mann, his former first assistant and personal friend who was exposed as an online commenter about news stories involving ongoing cases.
Mann’s admission came only after she initially expressed ignorance about any online posts from within the office after another veteran prosecutor, Sal Perricone, was exposed in a defamation lawsuit by federal target Fred Heebe.
In his parting comments, Letten didn’t mention now-demoted Mann by name, but he seemed to be addressing her directly when asked about the scandal that has launched two in-house investigations, one ordered by U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt because an earlier probe assisted by Mann seemed to be a whitewash.
"Have I always been the vulnerable sort because I like to default to trust? Maybe so,” Letten said. “That's what I'm not going to change….Look we've been disappointed, I've been disappointed, a million times. Look, we all get disappointed right? But the rewards are so great. Because I am inclined to trust you, whoever you are, if I get to work with you. Unless and until you prove me wrong."
The current transition will be much different than the one that took place when Letten was elevated from first assistant to interim to U.S. Attorney to, ultimately, permanent appointee. This time, the entire upper command of the office is being replaced in one sweeping overhaul: Mann is no longer first assistant and the future of her husband, veteran prosecutor and Letten confidante Jim Mann, also is in question.
But Letten said the office won't be distracted from its crime-fighting mission.
"This office is going to continue to do that,” Letten said. “This is not a prediction, it's a fact. This office is not going to miss a beat. It's not going to miss a step. It's not going to back down. It's not going to be diverted."
As top prosecutor, Letten was perhaps best known for fighting public corruption, bringing down a host of elected officials throughout the region. His list of officials-turned-convicts include New Orleans city councilmen Oliver Thomas and Jon Johnson, former parish presidents Aaron Broussard of Jefferson and Bill Hubbard of St. John, former Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price and longtime Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle, among others.
Letten hopes his impact on fighting public corruption will be lasting, saying that the region appears to be “turning the corner” on shenanigans in public office.
"I think we are no longer seen, or known, or perceived as this backwater haven for corruption,” Letten said, “where businesses go and get their lunch eaten, where they're shaken down and they have nowhere to go. We've dispelled that."
Letten’s outlook on the city’s persistent challenge in fighting violent crime wasn’t quite as rosy.
“The bad news is that we are still fighting a tooth-and-claw battle out there every day out there against violent crime,” he said, “against a relatively small cadre of mainly drug dealers who wantonly take lives.”
Letten admitted that the timing of his departure is awkward. The date was not entirely of his choosing, and it comes at a time when several major cases are deep in the pipeline. One case that is nearing a possible indictment is the not-so-veiled bribery investigation of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
But just as New Orleans’ criminal landscape is always full of surprises, so, too, was the unexpected chain of events that led to Letten’s departure.
“We have the weirdest problems, the strangest challenges, the damnedest struggles. So, maybe, just maybe, this event is consistent with that,” Letten mused.
While Letten wouldn’t address specific investigations, he expressed confidence that Boente, and whoever follows him as a permanent appointee, will see ongoing cases through to completion.
“You get a wonderful veteran like that to take over an office like this, and the great traditions of the U.S. Department of Justice, and a staff like this one, and partners like our federal partners – and our state and local partners – and the citizens can be sure there will be no break, no diminution,” he said. As for his own future, Letten said he'll take some time over the holidays to relax, but he also will take time to entertain job offers. What kind of offers? Letten wouldn’t divulge his prospects, but said they could range from the private practice of law to working in the non-profit sector.
"I’ll be enjoying the holidays and having dialogues with folks who I could end up having futures with professionally,” he said. “I'm playing my cards really close to the vest on that."
Whatever he does, Letten said he will stay in the area and strive to find ways to make public contributions.
“I’d like to stay involved in my community. I’m not sure how that’s going to happen, but I ain't going away,” he said.
Some of the near-term retirement activities that Letten did share include spending more time with his wife and two grown children, playing drums with his rock-and-roll band the Levee Dogs, and continuing his work in the restoration of a PT-305 boat for the World War II museum.
Another high priority is finding a new black Labrador retriever to replace his beloved pet Rico, who recently died.
As he cleared out the last of his belongings from his near-empty office, his trademark bushy moustache much grayer than when he started, Letten said that – overall – his contributions to the job pale in comparison what he received from it.
“I got the distinct privilege of helping to make the city, the region, better, more business friendly,” he said. “To improve quality of life. I mean, what higher calling is there? It’s wonderful. It’s a privilege. It was an honor. This was a gift to me.”