Kyle Schonekas, the pugnacious defense lawyer who was U.S. Sen. John Kennedy’s surprise pick to lead the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans, won’t be getting the job after all.
Schonekas confirmed late Friday that he was informed by the White House that President Donald Trump plans to “go in a different direction.”
The news came after the FBI had completed a background check on Schonekas, which was forwarded to the Trump administration. Schonekas said he got the message from Rob Luther, associate counsel to Trump.
Schonekas declined to discuss the reasons he was passed over, but he noted that his firm has represented many controversial people and causes. His clients have included Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter as well as trash magnate Fred Heebe, a onetime target of federal prosecutors in New Orleans, as well as serial rapist and former New Orleans Saints star Darren Sharper.
Schonekas called the news “a disappointment" but added, “I’ve got a day job. I’m going to continue my practice, and I’m going to continue to represent people who are both popular and unpopular.”
The news that Schonekas was the leading candidate for the top federal prosecutor in New Orleans came as something of a shock to local observers, given that he played a major role in upending that office several years ago.
While representing Heebe — who was then the central target of a sprawling federal corruption investigation — Schonekas and his partner Billy Gibbens went on the offensive. The two filed lawsuits that eventually unmasked two top lieutenants to then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten as pseudonymous commenters on numerous stories posted at nola.com.
The scandal and its fallout led to a series of resignations at the office, including finally that of Letten, who had by then led the office for 11 years.
In another startling development, federal authorities announced the next year that they were dropping their investigation of Heebe and his landfill business, which had been a primary focus of the office for several years.
Schonekas and Gibbens had demonstrated a similar willingness to play hardball in other cases that pitted them against the federal government.
Perhaps their biggest coup was persuading U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt to overturn the convictions of five New Orleans police officers in the deadly shootings on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina and the elaborate cover-up that followed. That victory — which wound up with the officers pleading guilty to reduced charges and receiving far more lenient sentences — also stemmed from claims of prosecutorial misconduct, including the anonymous commenting at nola.com.
Schonekas was also an unusual choice in for the job in another way: He was not known for his political activity, in contrast with most contenders for the job. In fact, state records showed he registered as a Republican only in April, just a couple of weeks before his name surfaced publicly as a contender for the job.
With Schonekas out, it’s not clear who the leading candidate for the post of U.S. attorney in New Orleans might be. Kennedy’s office, which is taking the lead on the appointment, had no comment.
A number of well-known local lawyers had been thought to be in contention before Schonekas got the nod. Among them were Peter Strasser, a former federal prosecutor who now works at the firm Chaffe McCall; Peter Thomson, a former federal prosecutor now at the Stone Pigman firm; Eades Hogue, a former federal prosecutor now at the McGlinchey Stafford firm; Brian Capitelli, a former federal prosecutor who now works at the Capitelli and Wicker firm; John Young, the former Jefferson Parish president and a former state prosecutor; and James Baehr, a politically active assistant U.S. attorney.
The position has been open since March, when Trump demanded the resignation of then-U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite and dozens of his peers around the country. Since then, the job has been held on an interim basis by Duane Evans, a longtime assistant U.S. attorney.