Resignations of U.S. attorneys under a cloud of scandal are rare. In an unusual step, Deputy Attorney General James Cole traveled to New Orleans on Thursday and informed the district’s federal judges that the Justice Department had appointed a career prosecutor to investigate the allegations of misconduct in Letten’s office.
Letten’s resignation, effective Tuesday, comes eight months into a scandal that sparked the Justice Department investigation of his top deputy and a second veteran prosecutor in connection with anonymous online criticism of a man whose company is the target of a federal inquiry.
The two prosecutors, former first assistant U.S. attorney Jan Mann and former assistant U.S. attorney Sal Perricone, acknowledged using aliases to post comments on the Web site of the Times-Picayune newspaper. The comments were highly critical of Fred Heebe, the owner of a local landfill that was under federal investigation, according to court papers. Perricone, a member of Letten’s inner circle, resigned, and Mann was demoted.
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating the episode, and last week a federal judge increased the pressure on Letten by calling for an independent counsel to probe the matter.
The judge, Kurt D. Engelhardt, also called for the department to investigate leaks of grand jury information to the media by prosecutors in the high-profile Danziger Bridge case, in which New Orleans police officers shot innocent city residents after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then tried to cover it up.
In a statement Thursday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. praised Letten’s service and announced the appointment of an interim U.S. attorney, Dana J. Boente, a senior prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia.
“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,” Holder said in a statement.
Through a spokeswoman, Holder declined to comment on the controversy.
Letten said he would stay on briefly to help the office with the transition to new leadership.
The Internet scandal came to light in March when Heebe filed a defamation lawsuit against Perricone. Heebe had been attacked repeatedly by an anonymous critic on the Times-Picayune Web site, and he hired a former FBI agent to track down the critic.
It was not just any former agent. He hired James R. Fitzgerald, whose work as a forensic linguist contributed to the 1996 arrest of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, who had eluded the FBI for 17 years.