Jim Letten, the nation’s longest serving U.S. Attorney, announced his resignation this morning at a news conference. The resignation – effective Tuesday – comes amid a growing scandal in his office over nasty, anonymous comments posted online by two of his top deputies.
Letten spent nearly 28 years in the federal prosecutor’s office, and helped net some of the biggest convictions in state history, including the conviction of former Gov. Edwin Edwards.
His career is defined by high-profile political corruption cases, from sitting city councilmembers to judges, former mayors to state senators. Arguably one of those biggest such investigations, that of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, is looming, with charges likely.
Letten took control of the 13-parish federal district in April 2001 as an interim successor to Eddie Jordan.
Letten, a Republican, was fresh off the heels of the Edwards conviction, which netted the former governor 10 years in prison.
Jordan, appointed by President Bill Clinton, was bound for the office of Orleans Parish District Attorney.
With the position open and Letten serving only as interim U.S. Attorney, state Republicans floated a list of potential permanent replacements. Among the front-runners: businessman and lawyer Fred Heebe, who currently finds himself in the crosshairs of a sprawling federal probe by Letten’s office. Heebe’s potential appointment, however, dissolved amid allegations of domestic abuse.
So for four years, Letten served as the top federal prosecutor in the region, only with an interim tag in front of his name.
During this time, his office netted the mail fraud conviction of David Duke, a State Representative and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard from Metairie. The office also completed a sprawling corruption probe at the Jefferson Parish Courthouse, claiming a dozen convictions.
Letten was on a roll, garnering praise and plaudits from politicians and citizens alike.
Critics have called Letten politically motivated, and some have questioned whether he unfairly picked on Democratic black politicians and power brokers.
Letten has brushed off such criticisms, saying he and his office follow the facts and push the best cases possible.
In May 2005, President George W. Bush made it official, nominating Letten for the permanent post. He was confirmed shortly later.
And in 2008, President Barack Obama reappointed Letten, despite their differing party affiliations.
Just over six-feet tall, with a deep voice and a strong handshake, Letten cast an imposing figure. And through his office, he became a larger-than-life local personality. He was noted on Carnival floats and feted at countless luncheons and events. His formidable mustache – the “Justache” – was his trademark.
He resided in Metairie with his wife and two children, played in a garage rock band, and became a sought-out speaker on the social scene.
Through the years, much like in his resignation speech today, Letten talked of his mission of “taking the fight to the streets,” ensnaring criminals and squelching corruption with a "laser-like focus."
His speeches were often saturated with optimism and he preached cooperation between the area’s many crime-fighting organizations.
The investigations and prosecutions continued at a steady clip and Letten avoided major controversies until earlier this spring.
A federal lawsuit by Fred Heebe, the businessman under investigation and one-time U.S. Attorney candidate, exposed Sal Perricone, senior litigation counsel and a top Letten lieutenant, as the author of vicious and anonymous online postings in the comments section of NOLA.com.
Numerous comments referenced the criminal justice system and pending cases. Some comments were harshly critical of local leaders and crime-fighters.
The Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility and Investigation opened an inquiry. Perricone eventually resigned and confessed to posting some of the comments.
Last month, the online commenting problem issue struck Letten’s office again. This time, Heebe accused First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann of making defamatory online comments. Mann was Letten’s top deputy and close friend.
She was demoted and remains in the office.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt, while weighing whether to grant a new trial sought by cops convicted in the Danziger Bridge killings and cover-up, demanded more transparency from Letten’s office.
Engelhardt criticized the Justice Department’s ability to probe the online posting matter, accused Mann and Perricone of lying, and demanded a more intensive investigation.