As District Attorney Eddie Jordan descended last week to his moment of greatest political vulnerability, a group of prominent business leaders met with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to craft an exit strategy for the beleaguered prosecutor—one that chiefly involved giving him a soft landing in a private sector job, sources familiar with the talk said Tuesday.
They knew the $3.7 million legal debt Jordan’s office—the result of a jury verdict ruling that he racially discriminated against white employees—faced a seizure of the office’s assets and disruption of his staff’s salaries. Jay Lapeyre, the president of the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, acknowledged that business leaders, Nagin and Jordan discussed finding the district attorney—his professional reputation deeply scarred—a way to make a living after leaving office.
“Mr. Jordan has some skills,” he said. “The challenge was to match those skills up for some period of time. That is what we tried to work through.”
The mayor, Lapeyre said, played a key role in crafting the strategy.
The unprecedented move ends a tenure mired in criticism over a widely perceived failure to successfully prosecute violent criminals, chronic turnover in his office, and most recently the bizarre disclosure that a robbery suspect fled to Jordan’s Algiers house only to then become a suspect in the shooting of a New Orleans police officer.
At a City Hall press conference with Nagin and Jordan’s successor, longtime New Orleans prosecutor Keva Landrum-Johnson, Jordan said only that he plans to spend time with his family before seeking a place in the private sector. Jordan said he named Landrum-Johnson, 34, as his first assistant on Tuesday, which means when his resignation becomes effective she will automatically be elevated to acting district attorney. Landrum-Johnson has agreed not to run for the job whenever an election is held, which a spokesman for the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office said they will recommend that Gov. Kathleen Blanco call next October.
Nearly five years ago, Jordan proudly strode into office riding mostly on a reputation stemming from having convicted former Gov. Edwin Edwards of corruption charges while serving as U.S. Attorney. Having won election as the city’s chief prosecutor, vowed an end to street violence and a safer city for families, he gave a quiet farewell perfectly characteristic of his public demeanor, revealing nary a hint of emotion.
Now, Jordan’s undoing appears rooted in one of his first official acts: Systematically firing white employees and replacing them with black applicants two weeks after taking office. While it’s hardly uncommon for politicians to clean house and install loyalists, a federal jury of eight white and two black jurors unanimously found that Jordan, who is black, fired 43 employees—all white but for one Hispanic—because of their race.
Of 56 total dismissals, 53 of the employees were white. Within six months of his administration, Jordan had hired 68 people, 92 percent of them African-American. Critics further have suggested that the firings had the effect of stripping the office of institutional knowledge and experienced talent, throwing its daily management into confusion and setting off a trend of poor working conditions and chronic turnover.
The resulting $3.7 million wrongful termination judgment, levied in May 2005, now appears to have given Jordan’s many critics the leverage to push him out of office.
Who will pay?
Nagin said the city still doesn’t have the money, but pledged to “sit down and facilitate a settlement that would involve the state and other players.”
The mayor said he feared setting precedent in light of another hefty $14 million judgment hanging over the DA’s office from the era of former DA Harry Connick. Councilman James Carter similarly declined to commit City Council support, but hedged, saying the council supported “an effective and uninterrupted district attorney’s office” and would consider “various options” for paying the settlement.
Meanwhile, the attorney for the fired workers said they won’t consider suggestions they take less money than the jury awarded. “I’m not talking about a settlement,” said Clement Donelon, the lead attorney for the 43 who successfully sued Jordan over racial discrimination. “The judgment has to be satisfied.”
Dropped murder cases
The district attorney’s office struggled from the start of Jordan’s tenure, hampered by chronic prosecutor turnover and staggering caseloads. Then Hurricane Katrina struck a devastating blow, closing the courts and leaving defendants languishing in jail for months. When courts opened back up in the summer of 2006, prosecutors struggled to get to their moldering cases while also handling the new arrests.
Though the public initially seemed patient, understanding the difficulty caused by the flood, critics became increasingly strident in condemning Jordan’s handling of violent crime, particularly murder cases. This criticism climaxed this summer, when his office dismissed charges against suspects in the 2006 murders of musician and teacher Dinerral Shavers and the Central City massacre that left five teenagers dead in the street. Both cases fell apart, with Jordan claiming uncooperative witnesses.
After a public outcry Jordan went back to the grand jury to get new charges in both cases.
Earlier this year, Jordan was further lambasted for his office’s repeated release of suspects, even occasionally ones arrested for violent crimes, because his prosecutors could not make a decision about whether to press charges under the state mandated deadline. These releases are called “701s,” shorthand for Article 701 of the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that no one can be held longer than 60 days on a felony arrest without an indictment.
Those releases exposed a lack of cooperation between Jordan and New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Warren Riley. But the public outrage over the procedure prompted Jordan to hash out an agreement with Riley that would require police officers to timely file their reports with the DA’s office. In exchange, the district attorney agreed to notify police about any impending releases because a police report had not been filed. Both have said that these procedures put an end to the rampant releases.