NEW ORLEANS — U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, whose successful prosecution of a former Louisiana governor and numerous other public officials won him bipartisan praise for more than a decade, resigned Thursday while the Justice Department investigates alleged misconduct by his top deputies.
Letten's announcement was an abrupt end to his tenure as the nation's longest-serving U.S. attorney. His crusade against crime resulted in convictions of corrupt judges, killer police officers, bribe-taking officials in New Orleans' long-troubled school system and scammers who tried to rip off Hurricane Katrina aid programs. He first won fame as an assistant U.S. attorney leading the successful 2000 racketeering prosecution of former Gov. Edwin Edwards.
Letten never directly addressed the allegations against his deputies. He said the decision to resign, effective Dec. 11, came after discussions with colleagues, Justice Department officials and his family.
"The decision ultimately was mine," Letten said at a news conference in New Orleans.
His success had made him one of the city's most popular public figures, but his support among political officials in both parties diminished after revelations about the online activities of two veteran prosecutors in his office.
One, Sal Perricone, resigned in March after acknowledging he criticized judges and politicians and commented on cases in anonymous posts on a local newspaper's website. Letten demoted his top assistant, Jan Mann, last month after she also confessed to posting several anonymous comments on the same site.
The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating the matter.
Those posts were revealed in court filings by attorneys for New Orleans businessman Fred Heebe, whose landfill operations are the subject of a federal probe. Heebe had been nominated by then-President George W. Bush for the U.S. Attorney position in November of 2001, but withdrew amid allegations that he had abused an ex-girlfriend and his ex-wife — allegations that he denied.
Letten was the acting U.S. attorney at the time. He held onto the post through the Bush years and was kept in what is usually a political patronage position by Democratic President Barack Obama.
Perricone's and Mann's posts, along with Letten's resignation, create uncertainty about high-profile cases handled by the office. Among them is an investigation of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's administration that recently resulted in two guilty pleas by businessmen who said they bribed a high-ranking city official during Nagin's tenure.
Last month, a federal judge ordered the Justice Department to conduct a new investigation of media leaks related to its probe of deadly police shootings on a New Orleans bridge after Hurricane Katrina. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt initially called for an investigation in June, but he said a report submitted by Mann is tainted and must be redone.
Engelhardt presided over a trial in which five former officers were convicted of civil rights violations stemming from the Danziger Bridge shootings. Defense attorneys have asked Engelhardt to order a new trial, arguing that media leaks deprived their clients of a fair trial.