Former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard’s bid to get his 2012 guilty plea on federal corruption charges thrown out will go before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday.
Broussard, who is serving a 46-month sentence in a Florida prison, contends the U.S. Attorney’s Office prevented his lawyer from effectively representing him by keeping the extent of an online-commenting scandal hidden from him.
That scandal, in which prosecutors Sal Perricone and Jan Mann were found to have commented anonymously on nola.com about cases their office was pursuing, led to their resignations and that of U.S. Attorney Jim Letten in late 2012. It also led the office to abandon its probe of River Birch landfill company owner Fred Heebe, who was the subject of some of the comments and who played a key role in bringing them to light.
Broussard’s lawyer, Arthur “Buddy” Lemann, filed the petition to vacate the conviction a year ago. It claimed the government withheld crucial information from Broussard’s attorney in the original case even after he had filed motions related to Perricone’s conduct. It also said Broussard would not have entered his plea had he known that Mann — who admitted two months later that she also had been posting about federal targets, including Broussard — was involved in the scandal.
However, U.S. District Judge Hayden Head threw out that petition in July, ruling that revelations about the extent of the online comments did not affect the voluntary nature of Broussard’s guilty plea to charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and theft related to a payroll fraud scheme and payoffs from a parish contractor.
Head ruled the comments cited by Broussard were already posted on nola.com prior to his decision to plead guilty, and he said only a few of the 33,000 mentions of Broussard on the site that were cited by his attorneys could be traced back to Mann.
That decision led to Broussard’s appeal, which will be heard by a three-judge panel Tuesday morning.
The commenting scandal has been invoked by defendants in several other high-profile corruption cases, including Mayor Ray Nagin, former City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt and former city official Stacey Jackson, but to little effect.
The scandal did largely provide the rationale for a federal judge’s decision to vacate the convictions of five New Orleans police officers in the Danziger Bridge shootings and cover-up.
Broussard’s sentence will keep him in jail through most of 2016.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.