The FBI has been looking into allegations that Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni sent sexually explicit texts to a 17-year-old he first noticed at a high school function last year, in the middle of Yenni’s successful 2015 campaign for one of the region’s most powerful political offices.
Three sources with direct knowledge told WWL-TV that FBI agents have interviewed at least four people about the explicit text messages between Yenni, 40, and a young man who was 17 at the time and is now 19, and that they collected the teen’s cellphone, apparently to search it.
“We have been made aware of the allegations and are looking into it,” Craig Betbeze, a spokesman for the FBI, said in a November email to the online publication NOLA Defender, which collaborated with WWL-TV on the reporting of this story. Betbeze later confirmed his statement to WWL-TV, but declined to comment further. The teen said his last contact with the FBI was in April.
The TV station asked several times, starting June 16, for an interview with Yenni about the allegations. He declined to grant an interview when asked in person at a June 22 Parish Council meeting. Shortly after that, his public relations adviser, Greg Buisson, told WWL-TV that Yenni would not grant any interview on the matter. Yenni has not been charged with a crime.
The youth who received the messages said Yenni, who was then the mayor of Kenner, first saw him at a function at his high school, a local Catholic institution. He said a mutual friend, who was 19 at the time, helped Yenni connect with him.
WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate agreed to protect the youth’s identity.
The friend, who allegedly helped connect the two, declined to be interviewed by WWL-TV. The youth said he and Yenni began to talk on the phone and text one another, and soon, the politician came to visit him at his job at a mall food court. They met in a bathroom, the youth said, and Yenni gave him some designer underwear. They kissed briefly.
The texting continued, becoming more explicit over time. The youth provided WWL-TV what he said are copies of the text exchanges that were recovered after they were deleted, on the condition that the station not directly quote from them. Printouts of the messages appear to indicate they came from a cellphone account linked to Yenni in multiple online search engines.
WWL-TV called the number in June and got the same outgoing voicemail message, featuring Yenni’s voice, that could be heard on Yenni’s official parish cellphone at the time.
The phone listed on the printouts of the text messages is not billed to taxpayers.
According to printouts of those texts, Yenni tells the teen he wants him naked.
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Days later, Yenni writes to ask the 17-year-old if he’s worn the underwear Yenni bought him. Yenni says he wants to see him model it.
Then Yenni texts the teen to say he wants to perform a sex act on him that night.
The youth, who is openly gay and is now in college, said in an interview with WWL-TV that he wants to expose Yenni’s behavior because he finds it disturbing.
While the youth was initially flattered and intrigued by Yenni’s overtures, he said the texts and phone conversations began to make him uncomfortable, such as one proposing three-way sex with him and the 19-year-old mutual friend.
“He asked me to go with him to his house in Oxford (Mississippi),” the youth said. Records show Yenni owns an apartment there. “Also, the way he would describe the sexual things he wanted to do to me. And he asked me to be a secretary or assistant in his office; that way I could be with him and not be questioned.”
Weeks after the sexting began, in June 2015, the youth said he broke off communication and blocked Yenni’s number.
Political opponents and critics have accused Yenni, who is married and has a young child, of questionable conduct for years. In fact, the teen’s father said Yenni’s opponents sought to persuade the father to give them copies of the texts last year so they could attack Yenni during the race for the parish presidency, but the father refused.
Under Louisiana law, the age of consent is 17, meaning Yenni would have committed no crime if he had had sex with the youth — something the youth said did not happen. But ironically, one question is whether Yenni’s texts proposing such activity could violate a federal law designed to protect children under 18 from obscenity.
The federal law bars the use of a telecommunications device for “the transmission of any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene or child pornography, knowing that the recipient of the communication is under 18 years of age, regardless of whether the maker of such communication placed the call or initiated the communication.”
Former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg speculated that may be the law the feds have been looking into.
The law has been challenged in the past and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, Rosenberg noted. Still, it’s rarely invoked, both because obscenity can be hard to define — and is often defended as free speech under the First Amendment — and because it’s hard to prove the sender knew the recipient was under 18.
As to whether Yenni knew how old the youth was, the teenager said he established his age in one of his first phone conversations with Yenni.
“It was the phone call where he told me who he was, and I told him I was 17,” the youth said.
Yenni’s response, according to the teen, was: “I know the laws.”
The feds already have some familiarity with Yenni’s private communications, thanks to an alleged extortion plot the FBI investigated six years ago. Yenni, who was 33 and unmarried at the time, was the ostensible victim in that case, as political opponents were threatening to use the private messages to embarrass him and force him out of the race for Kenner mayor.
In that case, Yenni, then chief administrative officer in Kenner, was allegedly using a BlackBerry tied into a city server and billed to taxpayers to send racy messages.
Yenni was preparing to run against Louis Congemi, then on the Jefferson Parish Council. Congemi’s ex-wife was forced to resign her post as Kenner’s director of information technology after she downloaded Yenni’s texts and gave them to Congemi.
No charges were ever brought, however, and Yenni won the election.
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The online newspaper NOLA Defender obtained alleged printouts of some of those texts — separate conversations with eight men and a woman that occurred over a three-week period spanning parts of December 2009 and January 2010.
The publication shared the text messages with WWL-TV, which sought to verify their authenticity by speaking with the people involved in the texts. Three of the nine people confirmed their accuracy. Two would not acknowledge sending the texts and refused to comment, while four could not be reached. WWL-TV was able to determine that Yenni’s sexting partners in those conversations were all adults.
The three people who confirmed the explicit texts from 2009 and 2010 told WWL-TV they were angry that Yenni would carry on such intimate conversations with them on a phone that was paid for by the city and that used city servers to preserve messages.
Rosenberg said the content of the texts from 2009 and 2010 wouldn’t likely be admissible in court if the feds were to charge Yenni over the 2015 texts, because none of the participants in the earlier texts was under 18.