Two recent high-profile events have proved how irresponsible use of the Internet can bring down giants in the public sector. Jim Letten, one of the most effective crime and public corruption fighters in Louisiana history, is the latest victim. David Petraeus, the former CIA director and commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was the first.
Letten resigned last week after two of his deputies were involved in anonymous website postings that criticized judges and made comments about pending cases. Petraeus resigned from his CIA post after announcing he had an extramarital affair with his biographer. The unexpected resignation came after a Petraeus family friend went to the FBI after receiving threatening i from the biographer.
Although there is no indication Letten knew what his lieutenants were doing, the damage was already done. Their e-mail antics have given defense attorneys cause for seeking new trials for their clients who were prosecuted by Letten’s office.
Letten is a Republican who became interim U.S. attorney in 2001. Former president George W. Bush gave him the permanent job in 2005, and he was reappointed by President Obama in 2009. The state’s two U.S. senators — Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter — agreed Letten was the right man for the job.
As chief federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Letten produced perhaps the highest conviction rate of public figures in recent U.S. history. Letten gained national recognition when he was an assistant U.S. attorney and secured the racketeering conviction of former Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards.
However, that was only the beginning of a stellar career. His office secured conviction or guilty pleas from three state district court judges, four persons involved in corruption linked to the family of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, two parish presidents, two high-ranking executives in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, a state senator, a sheriff, city councilmen in New Orleans and Gretna and a former mayor of Mandeville.
Former Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans appears to be the subject of a current federal investigation by Letten. It has already resulted in guilty pleas by two businessmen who said they bribed an unidentified city official.
Rafael Goyeneche, director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission of New Orleans, said Letten was more than a public prosecutor.
“The public perception of Jim Letten really transcended the position of United States attorney,” Goyeneche said. “In many respects, he is the public face of what the people of Louisiana want to change about the pre-Katrina ways of doing business in Louisiana.”
The Gambit newspaper said, “The public liked him, too. Letten developed a reputation for putting justice above partisan concerns. His prosecutions cut across lines of race, class, geography, political party and power. Crooked politicians of both parties found themselves on Letten’s hook just as surely as did drug dealers, fraudulent contractors and tax cheats.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Letten’s boss, said, “As the longest-serving U.S. attorney in the country today, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the people of his district and the nation by working tirelessly to make their communities safer through reducing violent crime, fighting public corruption and protecting their civil rights.”
The next question is: Who comes next? Times have changed, but it wasn’t uncommon in Louisiana’s past for some U.S. attorneys to look the other way when public officials in their political party were engaged in questionable activities. We hope those days don’t return.
Sen. Landrieu, as a Democrat, may have more to say about the future than anyone else since President Obama, a member of her party, will make the next appointment. The senator will make recommendations, and she said she wants to find “the most qualified individual for the post.” Her constituents need to ensure that she lives up to that promise.
Meanwhile, Dana Boente, first assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, will serve in Letten’s place on an interim basis. He has been a federal prosecutor for 28 years. John Horn, first assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, has been named to get to the bottom of the Internet problems that brought Letten down.
The Times-Picayune spoke for many Louisiana citizens who hate to see him go.
“Despite the sad end to his tenure, Mr. Letten’s office has been a beacon for Louisiana residents eager to rid the public realm of thievery and bribery,” the newspaper said. “It is a tremendous disappointment that some of Mr. Letten’s staff apparently let ego overcome their sense of ethics.”
Public officials at every level of government should learn from this unpleasant turn of events. Everything they do is held up to public scrutiny, and the Internet is no exception. They should realize by now that reckless use of the web can be extremely damaging to their bosses, their associates and the people they serve.
Letten is gone, and we ask that the next U.S. attorney take on this job with the same dedication and determination shown by this dedicated public servant. He was a class act.
• • •Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or firstname.lastname@example.org