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Kenneth Polite Facing Challenges As New US Attorney

Liskow & Lewis via The Lens

Kenneth Polite Jr. is wrapping up his first full week as the new US Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana. 

High on his priority list is likely selecting his top assistants — and making sure recent history is not repeated.

Polite is taking over the office led for 11 years by Jim Letten, who at one time topped a University of New Orleans ranking for job approval.

UNO political science professor Ed Chervenak said Letten drew an 85 percent approval ranking. But then it surfaced that Letten’s two top assistants were posting online comments on cases brought by his own office.

The assistants resigned.

Letten abruptly retired last December.

And his most high-profile success collapsed.

A federal judge earlier this month overturned convictions of five New Orleans police officers accused in shooting unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina. The reason? Prosecutorial misconduct.

Chervenak says Polite has some restrictions in assembling his own “dream team.”

“Typically what he would like to do is probably bring in some of his own people," Chervenak said. "But, because [of] some of the budget cuts that the federal government is facing, he may be limited in bringing in some of his people and he may just have to go with the staff that he has.”   

Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino says the timing of Polite’s appointment was remarkable, coming on the same day the Danziger ruling was released.

“That was some kind of first day," Ciolino said. "And it really is a almost symbolic transition from the past to the present — where in the morning the past reared its head and in the afternoon the future was ushered in.”

There’s been no announcement yet on whether the government will appeal the Danziger ruling. Ciolino says Polite may not have the last word on that decision.

“Ultimately the Department of Justice is going to make that call, given that this is a case of national importance that was run by DOJ lawyers rather than local lawyers,” he said. 

Polite’s appointment drew some criticism from Republican Senator David Vitter, who said the New Orleans native, at 37, may not have enough experience. And he wondered whether Polite would be as aggressive as Letten was at taking on public corruption cases.

Polite has said in interviews that he will pursue those cases, as well as others to stem violence by taking illegal guns off the streets.

Among Polite’s supporters is Pastor Fred Luter of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Luter is now in his second term as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention — the first African-American in that post.

He says his experience has made him sensitive to the racial element in high-profile positions, starting with his own.

“Even though that had something to do with it, if you talk to a lot of the Anglo pastors from across the country, they say ‘You know, we didn’t elect Fred because he was African-American, we elected Fred because he was qualified to do the job.’ And that’s how I see this with attorney Polite," Luter said. "Yes, he’s African-American. Yes, it means a lot to a lot of us in the community who are African-American. But, most of all, the brother is qualified to do the job.”

Luter says Polite must carefully select his inner circle of advisers.

“Just try to pick the best team you can by their credentials and someone that can work with you to help you fulfill the job responsibility," Luter said. "And trust and pray that they’ll be loyal to you and loyal to the laws of the land.”

No word yet on who will get those top positions.

Polite has said a priority will be restoring public trust in the US Attorney’s Office.

Eileen is a news reporter and producer for WWNO. She researches, reports and produces the local daily news items. Eileen relocated to New Orleans in 2008 after working as a writer and producer with the Associated Press in Washington, D.C. for seven years.