In the experience of Mike Anderson, the FBI’s ranking agent in New Orleans for more than three years, rooting out public corruption often resembles a game of whack-a-mole.
A prosecution like that of former Mayor Ray Nagin may dissuade venal politicians from stealing for a time, creating a “cooling off period,” as Anderson puts it, akin to the calm that follows the incarceration of a violent street gang. Inevitably, though, the void is filled, as in the case of Ira Thomas, the former Orleans Parish School Board president who took a bribe as Nagin was awaiting trial on 21 corruption counts.
“We don’t see the kind of deterrent effect we’d like to see,” Anderson said in a recent interview, alluding to the parade of local officials who have served federal prison time in recent years.
“People rationalize that they can get away with it, or the greed factor is just too strong. Unfortunately, I think New Orleans’ public corruption landscape falls into that same pattern.”
The revolving door hasn’t daunted Anderson, whose tenure here recently earned him a promotion to lead one of the FBI’s largest field offices — in Chicago, a city that knows corruption and violence on an even larger scale. But if he is proud of the FBI’s track record in New Orleans on his watch, he is equally aware of the business left unfinished, including a broadening heroin epidemic and an alarming spike in what Anderson describes as “unaffiliated violence” — fatal shootings and other violent crimes that can’t be attributed to a specific gang or drug ring.
Since taking the reins in 2012 of the New Orleans field office, which oversees FBI operations across Louisiana, Anderson has overseen a number of major investigations, including the Nagin case and the FBI’s probe of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. He has forged close relationships with the heads of area law enforcement agencies, who have described Anderson as accessible.
While keeping a relatively low public profile, he offered a vigorous defense of the bureau’s presence in New Orleans last year in the wake of the notorious Bourbon Street shooting, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu accused the federal government of taking a backseat in the fight against violent crime.
“He’s tough but fair and very smart,” said Jim Bernazzani, a former special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Orleans office who retired from the bureau and stayed in the city to run a nonprofit organization. “He wasn’t afraid to make a decision.”
Anderson, whose successor has been announced within the bureau but not publicly, leaves an office that has gotten increasingly involved in cases typically handled by state and local authorities. Even when the FBI can’t pinpoint a federal violation in a crime, it can contribute what the feds refer to as “domestic police cooperation,” assisting local investigators with surveillance and intelligence gathering.
“It’s kind of an umbrella,” Anderson said. “In the past, the FBI has used that authority very sparingly, but in the fight against violent crime, you’re seeing not just this office but other offices expanding our reach much more.”
At a time when the New Orleans Police Department has struggled to boost its ranks, the FBI has exercised “more discretion and more latitude to create a federal nexus for the type of violent crime that has traditionally been viewed as purely local,” Anderson said.
One recent example of this trend is the bureau’s role in the investigation of a string of armed robberies that have targeted Uptown bars and restaurants. U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite Jr. has vowed to prosecute the bandits under federal conspiracy laws if the authorities can prove the heists are related.
“The priorities of the FBI here in New Orleans continue to shift toward violent crime,” Anderson said. “We have dedicated more resources to gangs and violent-incident crime here than to any other (investigative) program. It pretty much runs neck-and-neck with our public corruption program, which has always been very large here.”
A wonkish accountant and attorney from Minnesota, Anderson sounds more like an engineer than a law enforcement officer. He joined the FBI in 1995, beginning his career investigating corruption in Miami. He ascended the ranks and, during a stint at the bureau’s field office in Washington, D.C., oversaw the high-profile investigation of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Anderson became familiar with Louisiana corruption years before he moved to New Orleans, having supervised the investigation of U.S. Rep. William Jefferson — now serving a 13-year prison stretch — as well as an FBI initiative to ferret out fraud and corruption in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
When he replaced David Welker as special agent in charge in New Orleans in 2012, Anderson walked into a federal law enforcement landscape that had been shaken by an online commenting scandal involving a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The damage was still unfolding. Later that year, longtime U.S. Attorney Jim Letten was forced to step down after it was revealed that his top lieutenant also had been leaving anonymous online comments about defendants, lawyers and judges. The spiraling scandal led a federal judge to overturn the convictions of five New Orleans police officers in the Danziger Bridge shooting.
The ordeal dealt a devastating blow to the government’s credibility, inviting countless challenges to convictions and derailing a multiyear FBI probe into landfill magnate Fred Heebe, who cast a long shadow over local politics, particularly in Jefferson Parish. Heebe was responsible for unmasking the prosecutors who were commenting under aliases, and in a rare if not unprecedented move, the Justice Department announced publicly that it was dropping its inquiry into his dealings.
That decision left many at the FBI unhappy, though the bureau made no public statement about it.
The FBI itself was not free from controversy under Anderson’s leadership. In July 2013, an agent fatally shot a man in New Orleans East during a drug investigation. The family of the slain man, Allen Desdunes, claims he was unarmed and the shooting was not justified.
The Justice Department disagreed but has never provided a public accounting of what happened or why the agent was cleared.
The FBI has remained busy throughout, probing bank robberies, sex-trafficking rings and an array of white-collar crimes. Among the most notable cases of Anderson’s tenure was one that ensnared more than three dozen members of a violent street gang known as the Harvey Hustlers. The drug-dealing gang has been blamed for at least seven murders.
As special agent in charge — Bernazzani likened the role to chief executive officer of a business — Anderson also was responsible for FBI investigations throughout the state brought by the bureau’s so-called resident agencies.
“One thing he did was he led from outside of his desk,” said Col. Mike Edmonson, the State Police superintendent. “You can’t command a large organization sitting behind a desk, and he didn’t. He engaged the community.”
Anderson said one of the greatest challenges his successor will encounter is the scourge of heroin, which he described as “worse than ever” locally. Purity levels are rising even as the drug remains affordable. That is causing an alarming number of overdose deaths and “affecting all communities,” Anderson said.
“The profile of the addict is so diverse,” he added. “You’ve got everybody from your stereotypical street junkie to soccer moms to professionals.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.