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Kyle Schonekas, right, who represents one of the officials of the trust benefiting the estranged relatives of New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson, heads to United States District Court Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans, La. Friday, Feb. 3, 2017 to finalize an agreement settling the federal lawsuit Benson filed almost two years ago against the officials overseeing the trust funds. Schonekas is said to be the lead candidate to become the next U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

A new and surprising name has emerged as the leading candidate for U.S. attorney in New Orleans: Kyle Schonekas, an experienced trial lawyer who was instrumental in ending Jim Letten's tenure in the same position.  

Schonekas' name had not come up among those rumored to be jockeying for the position over the past few months, but multiple sources with knowledge of the situation said Thursday that Louisiana’s congressional leadership has coalesced behind him. He is the top choice of U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, who is taking the lead in the selection process. 

Traditionally, the state’s two senators control the pick, because the Senate must approve the president's nominee. Before a name can be submitted for consideration, the nominee must pass an FBI background check, something that hasn't happened yet.

Kenneth Polite, appointed to the role by President Barack Obama, resigned in March. He had expected to remain a few more weeks, but the Justice Department abruptly asked all holdover U.S. attorneys from the previous administration to step down immediately.

Schonekas, 63, a formidable litigator and trial attorney, is known as one of the more pugnacious members of the local bar. His aggressive style was exemplified in his representation of local developer and landfill owner Fred Heebe, who was the subject of a lengthy probe by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Letten.

After federal authorities, armed with a search warrant, raided Heebe’s offices, Heebe and his legal team went on the offensive — first by challenging aspects of the raid and then by questioning prosecutors' tactics more broadly.

Their trump card was a civil lawsuit claiming that one of the top prosecutors in the office had been commenting using a pseudonym underneath stories about Heebe and other federal targets posted at The suit was filed by Schonekas and co-counsel Billy Gibbens, who had spent years as a federal prosecutor before joining Schonekas’ practice.

Sal Perricone, the office’s senior litigation counsel and one of Letten’s top lieutenants, soon acknowledged that he indeed was “Henry L. Mencken1951” — and that marked the beginning of the end for Letten’s 11-year reign.

Eventually, Letten’s first assistant, Jan Mann, also was unmasked as a commenter through a suit filed by Schonekas and Gibbens, and Letten himself was forced to step down.

Letten, a Republican, was extremely popular at the time, and some of his GOP supporters groused about Schonekas' tactics. Many local lawyers, however, saw the frontal assault as a needed corrective for an office they felt had grown arrogant and high-handed amid a string of successful high-profile corruption cases.

Those rooting for Heebe and Schonekas included U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, who had been U.S. Sen. David Vitter's campaign treasurer before taking the federal bench.

Engelhardt wound up commissioning an investigation into the U.S. Attorney's Office over the commenting, and he ultimately awarded a new trial to five former New Orleans police officers who had been convicted on civil rights charges in the Danziger Bridge shootings.

Vitter, a Republican who once was Letten's champion, eventually lost confidence in him.

Vitter left politics last year after losing the gubernatorial race to John Bel Edwards. But his influence remains, in part because he was instrumental in helping both Kennedy and U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy get elected. 

In one sign of that influence, Vitter's wife, Wendy, is considered a leading candidate for a post on the federal bench in New Orleans.

Sources familiar with the nominating process for U.S. attorney, meanwhile, said that while Louisiana's two senators generally have equal sway over nominations, Kennedy is taking a more active role in selecting the next U.S. attorney for the New Orleans-based Eastern District, while Cassidy is taking the lead in the Middle District, based in Baton Rouge.

Cassidy has appointed a panel to help him vet possible nominees. His brother, Baton Rouge attorney David Cassidy, said that the panel has not interviewed Schonekas, though he said members were asked their opinion of him. He said it would not surprise him if the nominee for the Eastern District post is not screened by the Cassidy committee.

The post of U.S. attorney is regarded as a political plum and sometimes goes to a major party donor or a person of their choosing.

Schonekas is not generally known as politically active. In fact, state records show he was registered as an independent until April 18, when he registered as a Republican.

Schonekas received his bachelor's degree from the University of New Orleans and his law degree from LSU. After graduating, he clerked for Heebe's father, longtime U.S. District Judge Frederick J.R. Heebe.

Unlike most of the other primary contenders for the post, Schonekas has never been a prosecutor.

He worked for roughly two decades at the prominent local law firm Stone Pigman, where he became a partner in 1984, according to a biography posted on his website. He then left to found his own firm — Schonekas, Evans, McGoey and McEachin — in 1999.

Schonekas' biography says he has tried more than 100 cases as a defense lawyer, including 50 jury trials, facing off in many of those cases against the U.S. Attorney's Office. Among the clients he has helped to defend recently: Lawyer Michael Arata, Fred Heebe's brother-in-law, who was accused of defrauding the state's film tax-credit program. (Schonekas was among Arata's lawyers, though he was not on the trial team.)

A jury convicted Arata of two counts, but in an extremely unusual ruling, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman sentenced Arata — who under sentencing guidelines was facing the prospect of several years in prison — to probation. He rebuked the U.S. Attorney's Office for what he termed "unchecked prosecutorial zeal."

Editor's note: This story was updated May 5 to clarify Schonekas' role in Michael Arata's defense.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @GordonRussell1.