“The investigation continues … and [Henry Mouton] admitted under oath to conspiring with another individual. Where this goes, I can’t comment … but stand by,” former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten told reporters outside a New Orleans federal courthouse June 1, 2011, the same day Lafayette’s Henry Mouton pleaded guilty to accepting almost half a million dollars in bribes while serving as a state Wildlife and Fisheries commissioner.
When Letten told reporters to “stand by” for more to come in the epic River Birch landfill investigation, no one could have predicted that the same high-profile corruption probe would later be described as “the biggest prosecutorial debacle” in New Orleans since Clay Shaw was indicted in 1968 for conspiring to kill President John F. Kennedy.
Nor could anyone have guessed that Fred Heebe and his stepfather Jim Ward, the landfill moguls targeted by federal prosecutors for giving Mouton the bribes he admitted to taking, would be walking away scot-free.
The sprawling post-Katrina corruption probe first came to light in February 2011, when Mouton, then 55, was indicted on multiple charges of conspiracy, receiving illegal payoffs and lying to federal agents.
Mouton later admitted to using his position as a Wildlife and Fisheries commissioner
to lobby public officials statewide in an attempt to keep the Old Gentilly Landfill closed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He admitted to receiving 170 checks totaling $463,970 from an unidentified “co-conspirator” in return for his efforts, which also included trying to prevent the Two Rivers Recycling Landfill from opening in Catahoula Parish.
The “co-conspirator” so widely discussed throughout the investigation was never identified in court documents but widely believed to be either Heebe or Ward.
So what happens to Mouton now that the U.S. government shockingly announced March 8 that it was dropping charges against two River Birch executives indicted in connection to the corruption case — and ending the investigation into Heebe and Ward without charging them with a crime?
According to several sources close to the case, Mouton’s fate is still largely up in the air.
“Bribery is like adultery; it takes two to tango,” said Arthur Lemann, the attorney for Dominick Fazzio, one of the River Birch executives whose charges in connection with the case were recently dismissed.
Lemann speculated that Mouton may be looking to withdraw his guilty plea and have his own charges dismissed.
Mouton deferred all comments to his attorney, Mary Olive Pierson, who did not return calls for comment. She told Nola.com that she plans to “explore any possibility.”
But other legal experts and sources close to the case say it may be too late in the judicial process for Mouton to withdraw his plea. And as Letten pointed out on that fateful day outside the New Orleans courthouse, “Mouton admitted under oath” to numerous illegal acts.
The government’s probe into River Birch executives began to unravel last year when Heebe’s lawyers discovered that two federal prosecutors tied to the River Birch case, Sal Perricone and Jan Mann, had posted countless comments about River Birch and other federal prosecutions online under news articles on Nola.com.
That same online commenting controversy eventually led to the Dec. 6 resignation of Letten, who recently accepted a position as an assistant dean for Tulane Law School, his alma mater.
The U.S. Justice Department has said little about ending the case other than citing “evidentiary issues.”
“This was a mess created by Letten and his posse, and they should have walked away from it a long time ago,” says attorney Lemann, who describes the high-profile corruption probe as “the biggest prosecutorial debacle” in New Orleans since Clay Shaw was indicted in 1968 for conspiring to kill President John F. Kennedy.
Prosecutors haven't said a word about Mouton since October 2012, when a judge granted a joint request, from prosecutors and Pierson, to push back his Oct. 24 sentencing date to June 19.
Federal prosecutors said at the time that the delay was “due to the continuing cooperation of the defendant,” Nola.com reported.
Mouton faces up to five years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine.