Analysis: 2012 Errors Linger Into 2016 For U.S. Prosecutors In New Orleans

Kenneth Allen Polite, Jr.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Go back to the 1980s conviction of a powerful Senate president, fast forward to the year 2000 and the conviction of a once-popular former governor, throw in the numerous other prosecutions of school board members, judges and other public officials over the decades.

         It all makes clear why federal prosecutors once seemed invincible as they busted corruption in Louisiana. But that image has taken a hit in recent years.

         That's not to say there haven't been more successes. Teaming with local officials, the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans, under Kenneth Polite, has helped successfully prosecute violent gang members — including two implicated in the city's infamous Mother's Day parade shooting of 2013. It's welcome aid in a city plagued by a police manpower shortage and stubborn crime.

         But, ripples from a years-old scandal that affected Polite's predecessor and the Justice Department continue into the new year.

         It started in 2012 with news that at least two of then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's underlings were anonymously posting inflammatory comments on a newspaper website. It later turned out that a Justice Department attorney also had made improper online comments. The Justice Department attorney was reprimanded. The two wayward New Orleans prosecutors stepped down. So did Letten — the man once lionized for convicting Edwin Edwards, among others.

         The scandal also led to the reversal of the convictions of five former New Orleans police officers on charges related to the deadly shootings of civilians after Hurricane Katrina.

         Prosecutors are trying to get the convictions re-instated, arguing that the misconduct did not affect the verdicts. But, in 2015, they lost a 2-1 decision by a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal.

         "The reasons for granting a new trial are novel and extraordinary," Judge Edith Jones wrote on behalf of herself and Judge Edith Clement. "No less than three high-ranking federal prosecutors are known to have been posting online, anonymous comments to newspaper articles about the case throughout its duration. The government makes no attempt to justify the prosecutors' ethical lapses, which the court described as having created an 'online 21st century carnival atmosphere.'"

         Jones went on to say that the Justice Department "inadequately investigated and substantially delayed the ferreting out" of information about the postings.

         Judge Edward Prado dissented, giving prosecutors hope that perhaps the full 15-member court will revive the convictions in 2016. If not, the survivors of the shootings and the relatives of the dead will likely have to endure another trial.

         2016 also likely will see the close of a Justice Department effort to hold people, not just corporations, accountable in the case of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. There won't be much to show for the effort.

         Former BP executive David Rainey was acquitted on charges that he lied to investigators about his calculations on the amount of oil spewing from the damaged well site — a verdict U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt told jurors he agreed with. Later, an obstruction charge was dropped against Kurt Mix, a former BP engineer accused of deleting text messages about the spill.

         Mix had already been acquitted on one charge. His conviction on another was thrown out after it turned out that a juror had improperly talked to her deadlocked fellow jurors about something she heard outside of the courtroom.

         Mix eventually pleaded guilty to a minor charge in 2015. But he made it clear that he felt.

         Similarly, prosecutors dropped long-standing manslaughter charges against well site leaders Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza in connection with the explosion. Vidrine pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor environmental charge — clearly wanting the feds out of his hair. Kaluza is fighting even that charge and is set for trial in early 2016.

         – by AP Reporter Kevin McGill



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