Letten's troubles began from within; businessman starts domino effect

Published: Dec. 6, 2012 at 11:07 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 13, 2012 at 11:09 PM CST
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Jim Letten announces his resignation Thursday morning at his office.
Jim Letten announces his resignation Thursday morning at his office.

New Orleans, La.—Jim Letten's troubles began from within. It was a domino effect of scandals triggered by a local businessman's aggressive investigation into Letten's office.

"It was made after very careful and extensive consideration," Letten said of his decision to step down next week as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

He leaves amid a Justice Department probe into his office.

"Without a doubt this was a situation that was only escalating and it was getting worse," said Former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg, who is now in private practice in the city.

For months, there had been speculation about Letten's tenure given the riveting headlines about the conduct of some of his top staffers.

In mid-March, longtime Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone was exposed by businessman Fred Heebe.

Heebe's filings in civil court accused Perricone of making prejudicial comments about potential defendants and cases on NOLA.com under the alias of Henry L. Mencken1951.

Perricone soon resigned and Letten said Perricone had acted alone.

But then this fall, Heebe sued Jann Mann, Letten's First Assistant, accusing her of doing the same as Perricone in on-line posts, using the alias "eweman."

The scandals garnered national media attention. On November 21, The New York Times newspaper ran an editorial with the headline, "In New Orleans, Comments by Assistants Imperil Job of Federal Prosecutor."

And finally, earlier this week Letten confirmed that "eweman" was indeed Mann. She was demoted.

"Acknowledged that she was also blogging, coupled with two federal judges questioning the integrity of the senior folks in the U.S. Attorney's Office, and suggesting perhaps criminal investigations…I think it was just a lot to deal with," said Rosenberg.

And Rosenberg said concerns raised by the state's two U.S. Senators, and from the federal judiciary were strong indicators that Letten's time was short.

"Judge [Kurt] Engelhardt was also one of the nominees that Senator Vitter strongly supported, and Judge Engelhardt expressing various serious concerns about the operations of that office, and the candor of that office, I think all of those factors led to a conclusion that Mr. Letten's term as U.S. Attorney was about to end shortly," continued Rosenberg.

Rosenberg said Letten oversaw about 150 people as U.S. Attorney.

"He does not know, or she, whoever the U.S. Attorney is what those individuals are doing 24 hours, 7 days a week in their professional and personal lives," he said.

Still, Rosenberg said the buck stops with Letten.

"The Attorney General, Department of Justice has recognized the importance of getting to the bottom this leak inquiry," he said.

Some legal experts said there could be a major restructuring in the office in the long run because the Justice Department and federal judges do not want the recent conduct of prosecutors repeated.