Politics doesn't mix well with FBI probes
Sunday, May 04, 2008
By Gordon Russell, Staff writer
Four years ago, a group of federal agents serving a search warrant battered down the door of the French Quarter townhouse of Jacques Morial, the youngest son of New Orleans' first black mayor and carrier of one of the city's most prominent political surnames.
The next week, a group of about 30 African-American ministers -- heading some of New Orleans' largest congregations -- led an angry protest against a federal probe into City Hall that had just begun to burst into public view.
Politics and race were central to the argument. The investigation was "intended to plant fear into the minds of black citizens of this city," said one minister, the Rev. Zebadee Bridges. Jacques Morial's attorney, Pat Fanning, accused leading Republicans of seeking political gain by orchestrating a probe led by a Republican U.S. attorney into the dealings of a prominent family in Democratic politics.
That was the volatile political climate that greeted Jim Bernazzani a year later when he stepped off a plane and took charge of the FBI's Louisiana operation, overseeing about 300 employees and a raft of investigations into allegedly corrupt officials.
The investigations rolled on, and many residents hailed Bernazzani as the feds marked several notable successes. In August, former City Councilman Oliver Thomas, widely considered the front-runner for New Orleans mayor in 2010, admitted to federal authorities he had taken bribes five years earlier. Thomas' conviction came in the wake of guilty pleas from a former high-level city official and a member of the mayor's inner circle.
Last week, five months after Thomas began a 37-month prison sentence, Bernazzani made two television appearances suggesting he might run for mayor of New Orleans. His superiors acted swiftly, removing him from his position three days later and ordering him to report to Washington.
"The bureau didn't have any choice," said Charles McGinty, a retired FBI agent from New Orleans who considers Bernazzani a friend. "Did he break the law? I don't think so. Should the bureau have removed him? Without a doubt."
Bernazzani, who would have been ineligible to run for mayor because of a City Charter provision requiring five years of residency, told his staff on Monday that he would take a couple of weeks to contemplate his next move. He also apologized for sparking the controversy.
Despite the quick removal of Bernazzani, the furor seemed to reignite the view among some prominent African-Americans that the investigations are politically motivated.
"For a guy to be essentially an announced candidate for mayor at the same time he's investigating and locking up most of his key opposition -- that smacks of conflict," said lawyer Ike Spears, who represents recently indicted political operative Mose Jefferson, the brother of New Orleans Congressman William Jefferson.
Spears isn't alone in his sentiments.
As Bridges, one of the 2004 protest's leaders, asked pointedly in a letter to The Times-Picayune last week: "Would Councilman Oliver Thomas have been the subject of an intense FBI investigation and sentenced to over three years in prison if he had not been a potential candidate for mayor of the city of New Orleans?"
McGinty said the fallout is unfortunate but predictable.
"It's going to hurt the New Orleans office for a while," said McGinty, who was a longtime supervisor of the FBI's local public corruption squad. "People are going to say, 'See, I knew it.' "
Not so simple
The reality, McGinty and others said, is that federal investigations are more complex than the public might recognize.
For instance, Bernazzani had little to do with Thomas' downfall; the councilman's admission of bribe-taking grew out of a debriefing of another defendant in the City Hall case the feds had been investigating since 2002 -- two years before Bernazzani arrived in New Orleans.
Even Fanning, who often suggested political motives for the federal investigation of former Mayor Marc Morial's administration, noted that those theories take hold in part because the public doesn't understand how the FBI works. He said he doesn't believe Bernazzani's interest in politics changed the outcome of anything the bureau did.
"Being the top guy, the SAC (special agent in charge) doesn't initiate the cases," said Fanning, a former federal prosecutor. "He's pretty much reactive. His agents come and say, 'We've got this lead and this lead.' He doesn't make decisions about who he wants investigated."
In other words, it would be essentially impossible for Bernazzani to aim FBI agents at a potential rival, at least without clear cause. But as the agent in charge, he would be privy to potentially damaging information about various politicians received by the bureau. In fact, the lead special agent must personally approve every public-corruption investigation.
Even if Bernazzani never used any of that knowledge in a campaign, the idea that a man in his position could do so is a sensitive matter for the FBI. It took the agency a long time to repair the damage wrought by former Director J. Edgar Hoover, who used bureau intelligence to intimidate adversaries in the 1950s and '60s.
"It's not that (Bernazzani) skewed any investigations one way or the other; I think he would have been incapable of doing that," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission. "He crossed the line in terms of the appearance that he had an alternative political motive.
"All they had to do was review those two interviews. He violated one of the principles of being an FBI agent. You cannot create an appearance of impropriety."
Loyola Law School professor Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor, said the Justice Department makes every effort to prevent its motives from being called into question.
That's why all proposed indictments of politicians get high-level review from Washington bureaucrats, she said. It's also why President Bush's 2006 firing of U.S. attorneys over what appeared to be political differences caused a furor.
"Justice bends over backwards to never appear political," Tetlow said. "That's part of what made the U.S. attorney firing scandal seem so horrendous: There seemed to be actual impropriety, not just an appearance of it."
Conspiracy claims common
To that extent, the reaction from Washington probably would have been the same whether Bernazzani was special agent in charge of New Orleans or Omaha, Neb.
But Bernazzani's clumsy flirtation with politics was without question made more awkward by his position as the face of the agency in a city with a busy public-corruption docket, a history of colorful politics and a fair amount of mutual suspicion between the races. Both Bernazzani and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten are white.
Letten, a veteran prosecutor promoted to the top post by President Bush, is familiar with the claims of persecution coming from politicians targeted by the feds. Among them: former Gov. Edwin Edwards, whom Letten helped convict on racketeering charges.
fter the jury came back with a guilty verdict, Edwards said: "The Chinese have a saying that if you sit by the river long enough, the dead body of your enemy will come floating down the river. I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough, so here comes my body."
Though such rhetoric rankles Letten, he tries to take it as a backhanded compliment.
"The slings and arrows that law enforcement has to endure has a direct correlation to the heat that we give out," Letten said. "The more active we are, the more predictable it is that you're going to get these wild assertions of prejudice and agenda."
The skepticism about federal motives is especially intense in New Orleans, with its racial and political riptides. It doesn't help the feds' case for objectivity that many of their recent political scalps have belonged to African-Americans.
As Xavier University political scientist and pollster Silas Lee noted, black residents around the country tend to view law enforcement with more suspicion than white residents do.
"Many African-Americans feel that they are disproportionately targeted for prosecution," said Lee, who is black. "Given that backdrop, and swirling of the conspiracy theory out there that he (Bernazzani) has a lot of say as to who gets investigated, this presented a very delicate situation."
That said, Fanning said he doubts New Orleans' singular dynamics had any impact on the case.
"I think if he had never handled a single political corruption case, you'd see the same result," he said. "Those guys up there (in Washington) are square. They don't have a sense of humor."
The rock stars
Bernazzani's flirtation with politics also put a new twist on the news conferences where the tough-talking G-man fashioned his local reputation.
Well before Bernazzani publicly contemplated becoming the city's chief executive, members of the local defense bar -- and their clients -- had been rolling their eyes at those events.
"Most people I know, both within the law enforcement community and in the defense community, think these weekly press conferences seem to be more about promoting these individuals than about reporting significant activity," said Tim Meche, co-counsel for Mose Jefferson.
Special agents in charge typically are wallflowers, Meche said.
"These guys are supposed to be in the background," Meche said. "I mean, does anyone remember the name of the special agent in charge during the Edwards case?"
Bernazzani, by contrast, was a household name in New Orleans, in large part because of his propensity to serve up colorful sound bites laced with borderline threats, all delivered in a thick Boston accent.
He was omnipresent, too, working the rubber-chicken circuit, talk radio and television all at once. In April alone, along with three news conferences to discuss developments in corruption cases, he spoke to the Metropolitan Women's Republican Club and the Algiers Kiwanis Club.
He even appeared on television to warn would-be tax cheats that the FBI was watching.
The high visibility made Bernazzani something of a celebrity. But it might have hastened his exit too.
As Fanning, Morial's attorney, put it: "I think his downfall was he fell in love with the camera."
Personal political motives might not have been the only explanation for the tough talk.
Goyeneche said he thinks the Justice Department encouraged Bernazzani and Letten to publicize their crackdowns as much as possible, in part because of the flow of billions of dollars in federal aid to the region after Katrina.
"I think Bernazzani and Jim Letten have been doing what they were instructed to do by their superiors in Washington," he added. "While some people might have found it over the top, I think most in this community found it invigorating."
The feds want to protect their investment in the area, and anti-fraud measures are one way to do that; both the local FBI and U.S. attorney's offices got extra resources and "loaner" employees after the storm. The agencies also teamed up to prosecute penny-ante cases they wouldn't have touched in normal times, such as $2,000 FEMA frauds, as a way of sending a message that the feds were watching.
"They're trying to use these press conferences as a deterrent, so that people can see the federal government is being vigilant and aggressive, and that no one is above or below their scrutiny," Goyeneche said.
However, he noted, the media briefings were cast in a new light in the wake of Bernazzani's political musings.
"When you have Jim Bernazzani do what he did last week, it fuels the argument" that politics are in play, he said. "That's why the Justice Department didn't let grass grow under their feet."