Revelations about an online commenting scandal involving federal prosecutors in New Orleans do not cancel out former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard’s decision to plead guilty to federal corruption charges, a federal judge ruled this week.
In an order denying the request to toss out the 2012 guilty plea, U.S. District Judge Hayden Head wrote that while officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office likely committed ethical violations in Broussard’s case and others, the violations were not so severe as to call into question whether Broussard voluntarily entered the plea or received effective advice from his attorney. The ruling came in response to a motion by Broussard’s attorney, Arthur “Buddy” Lemann III, that argued that prosecutors withheld information from the former parish president and his previous attorney, Robert Jenkins, about the extent of commenting on nola.com by federal prosecutors.
Jenkins has said in an affidavit that had First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann’s responsibility for pseudonymous online comments about the case been public at the time, he would not have advised Broussard to plead guilty to the conspiracy, wire fraud and theft charges that earned him the 46-month sentence he is now serving.
But Head said there is a high bar for doing away with a guilty plea. While noting that Mann and Sal Perricone, another top prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, appeared to have committed ethical violations by making online comments about ongoing cases, Head said those comments did not taint Broussard’s guilty plea.
“Broussard does not now claim that he did not understand the charges against him or the consequences of his guilty plea,” Head wrote. “He does not claim that trial evidence was withheld, discovery denied or there were significant procedural errors in the conduct of the case against him in court. This court finds that the revelation that Jan Mann had blogged about Broussard on several occasions could add little to Broussard’s underlying decision regarding a guilty plea.”
Broussard can appeal the ruling.
The commenting scandal led to the resignation of Mann and Perricone and eventually to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s departure. It has been invoked by defendants in a wide variety of federal cases, including former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, former City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt and former city official Stacey Jackson.
It has met with little success in those cases, though the scandal did largely provide the rationale for U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt’s decision to vacate the convictions of five New Orleans police officers in the Danziger Bridge shootings and cover-up.
After the revelations about commenting in the office came to light, federal authorities also ended their probe of Fred Heebe, the owner of the landfill company River Birch Inc., who played a key role in bringing the comments to light.
In his order, Head noted that the comments cited by Broussard were already posted on nola.com prior to his decision to plead guilty. While defense attorneys have pointed to more than 33,000 mentions of Broussard on the site, only a few of those could be traced back to Mann, Head said.
Revelations about the extent of the commenting do not “taint the voluntariness” of Broussard’s guilty plea, he said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.