Ricochets from the 2012 online commenting scandal that implicated former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s top prosecutors continue to be felt in New Orleans this month with a federal judge sending the case of Rennee Gill Pratt back to court for an evidentiary hearing. The hearing is to examine whether online comments made by federal prosecutors about the case impacted its outcome.
Pratt, a former Louisiana legislator and member of the New Orleans City Council, was convicted on conspiracy charges related to the allocation of more than $1 million in taxpayer money to a fraudulent charity controlled by the family of of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.
Calling the online comments made by assistant U.S. attorneys under pseudonyms “inappropriate” “offensive” and laced with racist overtones, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle agreed last week to hold an evidentiary hearing to figure out whether jurors in the Pratt case had been exposed to and influenced by the government’s misconduct. The Times-Picayune reports:
To find out, Lamelle said, questionnaires will go out to jurors — possibly to all jurors, but at least to those who said during jury selection that they got their news from NOLA.com, the website of The Times-Picayune — to gauge their exposure to the online comments.
If there is evidence they read comments and that made the trial unfair, Lemelle could throw out Gill Pratt’s conviction.
Gill Pratt’s lawyer, Michael Fawer, will also likely try to delve deeper into the online commenting scandal to further discredit the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which won a conviction against Gill Pratt after a first trial ended with a hung jury. He wants to question federal prosecutors under oath to see what they knew about the online comments. Lemelle didn’t make clear whether he would allow that.
Revelations of the government’s inappropriate communications has already ended the careers of two of the office’s long-time prosecutors including First Assistant Jan Mann, and caused U.S. Attorney Jim Letten to resign (he was the nation’s longest-tenured U.S. Attorney at the time). What’s more, it undid the convictions of 5 former New Orleans police officers for their roles in the Danziger Bridge shootings.
Here’s a summary of the misconduct from CBS News:
Former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten resigned in December 2012 after two of his top deputies acknowledged they had been posting anonymous comments on nola.com, the Times-Picayune’s companion website, about cases their office had handled, including the Danziger Bridge investigation…
In his opinion, Judge Kurt Englehardt, who heard the case originally, wrote: “This case started as one featuring allegations of brazen abuse of authority, violation of law and corruption of the criminal justice system; unfortunately, though the focus has switched from the accused to the accusers, it has continued to be about those very issues. After much reflection, the Court cannot journey as far as it has in this case only to ironically accept grotesque prosecutorial misconduct in the end.”
Mann and Sal Perricone, the other prosecutor who resigned amid the scandal, cut a deal with the Eastern District of Louisiana last month to resign from federal court altogether. They were able to keep their law licenses and their ability to practice in state court, however, and have not yet received any discipline from the Louisiana Bar Association.