Opinion – 1/31/2003

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 31, 2003

The Panolian – "Big Easy" by John Howell Sr.

For additional opinions and articles,
pick up the 1/31/03  issue of The Panolian

Of Politics and Prostitutes

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The curious Canal Street bordello investigation has apparently closed in New Orleans with federal investigators having arrived at this profound conclusion: The boat did it.

That’s great relief to several hundred men in this city who were reported to be among the brothel’s clientele. For months the johns have been sweating through the legal process, afraid that trials of the $300-an-hour hookers, their madam and co-conspirators would bring a public disclosure of the customer list. But there were no trials, only plea bargains at deep discounts.

The investigation and arrests were announced with great fanfare and import late in 2001. The U.S. Attorney’s office charged that it had broken up a major crime syndicate involving drug trafficking, money laundering and prostitution in interstate commerce.

The news media frequently featured photo and video of the fashionable mansion on Canal Street where the operation was housed, juxtaposed with attractive ladies led in handcuffs from police cars into jailhouses, and lawyers making claims of innocence and unfairness.

It was those claims of unfairness that slowed the momentum of the case. Why, defense attorneys argued before the media, were no customers charged? After all, the federal government had spent weeks if not months with the house under surveillance with its phones tapped and every conversation monitored.

The customer base was alleged to have included prominent doctors, lawyers and political chiefs in the city, and speculation about whose names were on "the list" was often topic in New Orleans’ bars and coffee houses.

There are no federal laws against soliciting prostitutes, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten responded and was forced to defend his decision not to go after the men. Letten never said why customers could not be charged with conspiracy of some sort. That’s a legal catchall frequently twisted around bystanders of marginal culpability. Instead, Letten offered to share information with New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick so the men could be charged under state law.
Nothing doing replied Connick, whose political and social connections run so deep in the city that he knew that any such list would include too many names of friends. Besides, he was in the final year of a 27-year career and wasn’t about to make those kind of waves.

When it was revealed that the brothel investigation had been ongoing prior to the September 11th attacks and that F.B.I. personnel had continued the surveillance full force while the rest of the country was searching for terrorists, the federal district attorney found himself again defending his case against the hookers.

With each legal step forward, defense attorneys would posture for trial or some other legal maneuver that would be conducted in public. Each time the prosecution would back down. You can imagine the enormous behind-the-scenes pressure that Letten’s office must have been getting to keep those names secret. When pleas were finally bargained, a few wrists and backs were slapped all around. Hookers were happy, madams were merry, conspirators were congenial.

In the end, only two johns were prosecuted; two Mississippi men who had hired some whores to entertain business clients on a yacht in the Gulf., crossing state lines and entering international waters in the process. The case finally fell apart as they were brought to court in December and were allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges.

Then, using some obscure maritime law, federal prosecutors allowed the boat to "plead" guilty and levied a big fine on the craft. Name of the boat: "Crime Scene."

Case closed.

Or maybe not.

The new District Attorney for New Orleans Parish is Eddie Jordon, the former U.S. Attorney best known for his successful prosecution of former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards. Presumably, Jordon could take up Letten on his offer of shared information and go after customers even now. Jordon overcame an opponent endorsed by his predecessor Connick, and when he took office in January, he started firing Connick’s long-time employees. Jordon is also far less beholden to those doctors and lawyers and political chiefs whose identities might be revealed through prosecution under state law.

That great, silent sigh of relief in New Orleans in December was perhaps premature. We’ll keep you posted.