Telly Hankton’s lawyer: FBI’s meeting with reporters raises questions

A defense attorney for purported Central City crime boss Telly Hankton has renewed a request for U.S. Department of Justice documents related to the Sal Perricone online commenting scandal, saying his case is bolstered by federal prosecutors’ recent revelation that FBI agents met with a trio of reporters before the publication of an article about Hankton.

The latest motion by veteran defense attorney Arthur “Buddy” Lemann focuses on an Oct. 10, 2012, meeting at New Orleans FBI headquarters between two FBI special agents and three reporters from The Times-Picayune.

The meeting was held four days before a lengthy article about the alleged Hankton crime organization was published in the newspaper.

Four days after that, on Oct. 18, Hankton and 13 other defendants were charged in a broad racketeering indictment that accused them of scores of crimes, including murder.

Hankton already is serving a life sentence in state prison for murder.

Lemann earlier had requested that U.S. Magistrate Judge Alma Chasez allow him to subpoena reporters and FBI agents for a Friday hearing scheduled in the case, but the judge denied that request last week. She called it a “fishing expedition.”

Lemann’s renewed request, filed Wednesday, seeks to expand the scope of the hearing.

In response to Chasez’s earlier denial, Lemann retorted that “These fish already have been caught and the only remaining question is whether they should be fried or baked.”

Lemann, like a handful of other attorneys, has been seeking and continues to seek documents related to a Justice Department investigation into anonymous online commenting about federal cases by at least two federal prosecutors during the tenure of former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.

Though those documents are sealed, some details about the probe were revealed in September, when a federal judge tossed the convictions of five former police officers based in large part on the anonymous commenting by former federal prosecutors Perricone and Jan Mann.

Lemann is trying to make a case that the government’s misconduct goes well beyond Mann and Perricone’s commenting habits and that authorities sought to disseminate negative information about criminal targets in various ways.

In May, Lemann first sought the documents related to the probe into Perricone and Mann. He renewed his request in late September, after U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt overturned the guilty verdicts against the five officers convicted in the Danziger Bridge case.

In a motion opposing Lemann’s request, federal prosecutors last week disputed that Hankton is entitled to the fruits of the DOJ investigation. The government accused Lemann of trying to “exploit the egregious actions of former employees” and argued he is seeking to obtain documents unrelated to a legitimate defense.

In that motion, prosecutors acknowledged that a meeting took place last year between FBI agents Chip Hardgrave and Keith Burriss and three reporters from The Times-Picayune. The three reporters — Gordon Russell, John Simerman and Claire Galofaro — now work for The New Orleans Advocate.

The FBI agents received permission from a supervisor to talk to the reporters because of worries about the “violent nature” of the Hankton operation.

They sought to find out whether the article would risk the safety of agents by “tipping off those defendants who were to be arrested,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Privitera wrote.

A couple of facts in the article could have come from the FBI’s Oct. 10 meeting with reporters, Privitera wrote, emphasizing the meeting lasted only 35 minutes, according to an FBI sign-in sheet.

For example, she wrote that the article included a reference to Hankton’s “nearly mythic reputation” among law enforcement agents, which jibed with a statement made by Hardgrave.

Likewise, she wrote that a reference comparing the alleged crime boss to “Keyser Soze” from the movie “The Usual Suspects” likely came from Hardgrave.

The reporters showed the agents a large chart tracing the Hankton organization, the government’s motion said, and the agents noted two errors in it.

Those errors did not appear in the chart printed in the newspaper, the Lemann motion said.