[Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include information about federal prosecutors pushing for Mouton to forfeit the hundreds of thousands of dollars he received as bribes.]
Former state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries commissioner Henry Mouton could spend up to five years in prison and a receive a maximum $250,000 fine after pleading guilty Wednesday afternoon to federal charges of conspiracy to receive bribes and illegal payoffs.
In his appearance before a U.S. District Court judge in New Orleans, Mouton, 54, of Lafayette, 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.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten has not yet identified the rival landowner, but court documents have linked Mouton to River Birch Landfill owner Fred Heebe. Letten said in a press conference Wednesday that no one else has been charged yet in connection with Mouton's case, also noting that his office will not confirm or deny whether target letters have been sent to Heebe or anyone else involved.
“The investigation continues … and notwithstanding any other individuals being looked at, [Mouton] admitted under oath to conspiring with another individual. Where this goes, I can't comment … but stand by,” Letten said.
As part of a plea agreement, federal prosecutors will drop two counts of receiving illegal payoffs, but Mouton still faces charges of setting up “straw” men to illegally contribute to the campaigns of an unidentified congressional candidate and a statewide candidate and lying to federal investigators.
Mouton has agreed to testify at any trials that could stem from the investigation and also must fully cooperate with U.S. prosecutors until Mouton's sentencing on Jan. 25, 2012. In addition to prison and fines, he also could receive up to two years of supervised release.
Prosecutors also have filed a request of forfeiture, which means Mouton could be forced to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars he received as bribes.
Wednesday marked Mouton's second appearance in federal court since he was indicted Feb. 25. He initially pleaded not guilty to the lengthy indictment, changing his plea to guilty Wednesday as part of the plea deal. The court did not reveal any additional details Wednesday on the four-page plea agreement.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman said Mouton lied to the FBI at least four times, “maybe more,” and wrote 18 letters lobbying for the closure of old Gentilly while never disclosing his personal ties to the rival landfill. He also failed to report the income he received from the rival landfill over his seven-year stretch of receiving periodic checks.
“You recommended phony investigations … to benefit you and your coconspirators,” Feldman said during the hearing.
A 10-page factual basis, which would have been used as evidence against Mouton had he gone to trial, says Mouton met the rival landfill owner in 1996 while at a fundraiser for former Gov. Mike Foster. The landfill owner contacted Mouton shortly after their encounter and agreed to pay him $2,000 a month for Mouton to provide “insider political information and access to the governor.”
Foster appointed Mouton to the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission in 2003. He served until December 2008, but still received payments from the rival landfill owner until April 2010.
Mouton, who entered the courtroom with his sister and his attorney, said in court that he is currently being treated by a doctor for depression and celiac disease.
The Lafayette native and resident appeared measured before and during the arraignment, later ducking his face as he walked into the elevator to exit the courthouse.
His attorney, Mary Olive Pierson of Baton Rouge, declined further comment after the arraignment.
“I think the judge and Henry said it all,” she said.