Peter Strasser

In the thick of a multi-week gang and racketeering trial last February, Peter Strasser, the presumptive nominee for the key post of U.S. Attorney in New Orleans, got into a heated argument with a federal prosecutor that turned physical.

Accounts vary as to the intensity of the confrontation between Strasser and assistant U.S. Attorney Myles Ranier. But Strasser, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who was representing accused 39'ers member Damian Barnes, either pushed or poked Ranier in the chest.

Few people actually witnessed the incident because it occurred during a break in the trial, when the judge and most of the lawyers involved were out of the courtroom. Deputy U.S. marshals quickly came over to settle things down.

This much is clear: No one was hurt. But the dustup was sufficiently troubling that it got the attention of then-U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite Jr. and was memorialized in a written document.

“Given that this is a personnel matter, I will decline to comment specifically as to these troubling allegations,” Polite said this week. “With that said, the top priority of any good leader should be to protect, not harm, those under his supervision.”

Ranier, the lead prosecutor in the 39'ers gang trial, referred questions about the matter to acting U.S. Attorney Duane Evans.

Evans replied with a prepared statement: “The office cannot comment on personnel matters.”

Both Ranier and Evans could be working for Strasser in a matter of weeks.

Strasser declined to discuss the incident in detail, citing Justice Department protocol on pending nominations. But he stressed that he and Ranier both apologized to one another within minutes of the confrontation, that he has enormous respect for Ranier’s legal chops, and that the two men are “great friends” today.

Three other defense attorneys in the trial -- Arthur Lemann IV, Eric Malveau and Billy Sothern -- said they weren't around for the dust-up. Lemann and Malveau said they heard about it later, chalking it up to the heat of battle during a trial that ran six weeks and involved some 15 murders, at least one for each of the 10 defendants.

"I laughed," Malveau said.

The incident, now eight months old, caused a minor stir in New Orleans’ clubby legal circles at the time. It’s been making the rounds a second time more recently as Strasser waits for President Donald Trump to officially nominate him for the post of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

The incident will undoubtedly come up in the FBI’s background check of Strasser, which must be completed before a presidential nomination can occur.

Were Trump to nominate Strasser, he would be acting at the request of U.S. Sen. Jon Kennedy, R-La., who has taken the lead on filling that post – one of three U.S. attorney positions in Louisiana.

Kennedy did not respond to a question from The Advocate about whether he was familiar with the courtroom incident. A spokeswoman, Michelle Milhollon, noted that nominations can take months because of the lengthy vetting process. 

Kennedy has been a supporter of Trump, but they have not always seen eye-to-eye on political appointments.

Trump declined to nominate Kennedy’s first choice for U.S. attorney in New Orleans, defense lawyer Kyle Schonekas, for unspecified reasons.

Meanwhile, Kennedy has so far declined to pledge his support for Kyle Duncan, a Trump nominee for an opening on the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said this week that he plans to go ahead with hearings on Duncan’s nomination even though Kennedy has yet to sign a “blue slip” indicating he supports Duncan's nomination. 

Milhollon noted that Kennedy turned in the blue slip, but described him as still undecided on Duncan. She said Kennedy -- who is a member of Grassley's panel -- did not want to block Duncan's hearing, adding that Kennedy looks forward to questioning Duncan on the record. 

It’s not clear whether Kennedy’s demurral to date is a harbinger of a “no” vote. But he could presumably sink Duncan’s chances if he chose to, with all nine Democrats on the committee likely to vote against Duncan. If Kennedy were to vote with the Democrats, the confirmation would fail on a 10-10 tie.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @GordonRussell1.