After leading the FBI New Orleans Division for two years, Jeffrey Sallet on Friday (Nov. 3) is leaving his post as special-agent-in-charge of the office that covers Louisiana to lead the FBI division based in Chicago. Eric J. Rommal, who previously worked in FBI offices in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., will replace Sallet in New Orleans at the end of this month.
Before he departed, Sallet sat down with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune on Oct. 25 to talk about Louisiana’s legacies of public corruption and violent crime, the case that keeps him up at night and his favorite lunch spot.
How much public corruption is there in New Orleans, compared to other cities where you’ve worked?
I have had the unique opportunity of working in the area of corruption for the four New England states of Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. I had the perspective of being the national chief of corruption and civil rights, and I would say that the corruption in this state is at an extremely unacceptable level.
The citizens of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana should expect and demand honest government. Last time I checked, government works for the citizens, the citizens do not work for government.
We have two corruption squads in the city of New Orleans. There are field offices that are five times our size that don’t have that. We are very committed to eradicating it, but it’s going to take a sustained effort. It’s going to take commitment of the people in this state, not only the people working for our office, to not tolerate it.
Note: There are a total of 56 FBI field offices, nationwide. The FBI New Orleans office covers the entire state of Louisiana. The New Orleans division is comprised of approximately 400 employees, including FBI agents, task force officers employed by local agencies, clerical workers and other employees.
Have you learned anything in the last two years to explain Louisiana’s history of public corruption?
You could talk about all the nuances related to this. One is, you don’t have term limits on your sheriffs and your district attorneys. Is it a healthy environment when the same family controls a parish through one of those means for decades? Do you really want to upset someone who has been in power for 30 years and may never get out of power?
The way the system has been set up, there’s been neglect throughout the years. The expectations of the people doing some of these jobs is, ‘Hey I’m in an office, and I’m going to take what I can get.’ And the people around them often fear confronting that.
It is not much different from the fear I saw in organized crime in New York City, where people don’t want to take on mob guys. People don’t want to give up corrupt public officials, often, because they’re afraid of the consequences. Are they going to lose bids? Are they going to lose jobs?
How do you address that? It’s going to take a huge cultural shift.
Is public corruption getting better or worse in Louisiana?
It can’t get much worse. I think the messaging from this office is certainly resonating. I think people are nervous if nothing else. They shouldn’t be any less nervous because I’m leaving. There are great people here that are doing the work, and they were doing the work before I got here and will do it after I’m gone. If people — and the people know who they are — think because I’m leaving, all the sudden these ongoing cases are going to stop, that’s not happening.
Are there investigations focused on New Orleans politicians that could bear fruit in the next few years?
I can’t talk about open and active corruption cases. What I can tell you is, just because you don’t hear something, doesn’t mean something big isn’t coming.
Is New Orleans’ violent crime problem better or worse than other cities our size?
At one point this year there was a shooting every 10 hours in the city of New Orleans. And the murder rate, at one time, was double that of Chicago, per capita. So the level of violence is absolutely unacceptable, whether you compare it to other cities or not.
Have you learned anything in the last two years to explain our violent crime problem?
You can’t police your way out of this. Part of this is going to be socioeconomic: making sure there are opportunities for people so they’re getting jobs, an education, social services. Making sure you have enough police officers. NOPD does the best they can, but they don’t have a cadre of police officers.
Community policing is not having a community policing unit. Community policing is having police officers that are out there, standing on street corners every day, and officers who know the people in the neighborhood. If you don’t have enough people to do that, it’s very difficult for you to get to know your neighborhood.
Is there any particular case that has startled you while working in Louisiana?
When three police officers were assassinated in July of 2016 in Baton Rouge, that’s something that’s really embedded in my head. The police are the difference between sanity and chaos. For somebody to just randomly shoot people because they are police officers was such an absolute tragedy. That’s something that has certainly kept me up at night and will continue to keep me up at night.
When you took over in 2015, what were the top priorities in New Orleans?
The top priorities, which were not a surprise to me, were violent crime and gangs, public corruption and civil rights. Violent crime and the gang violence epidemic is something the FBI has focused on from coast to coast.
The New Orleans Police Department is not one of our frequent fliers for civil rights violations, color of law violations — meaning use of excessive force or use of official position to deprive people of their rights. But statewide, we are the No. 1 division in the country for open and active cases related to civil rights violations, specifically color of law violations related to excessive use of force. The Iberia Parish investigation — that was a really large case of civil rights abuses.
Did those priorities change, and why?
Priorities have remained the same. An additional priority was to enhance an already strong crisis management and crisis event program. New Orleans hosts the Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras, other large events — all things that represent potential mass violence threats. We’ve taken lessons learned from all the mass casualty events that have occurred both domestically and internationally and used to them to better prepare.
What advice did you offer your replacement, Eric J. Rommal?
Listen, learn and become part of the community. Embrace the city, embrace the people embrace the leadership. The best thing I can say about the success of my model, if people want to call it successful, is just lean forward, be present and be part of the community.
Anything you can tell us about the selection of the next U.S. Attorney?
The hope is that — whoever that person may be — that they are a collaborative, no-nonsense person who is going to be as committed as the prior U.S. Attorneys Kenneth Polite and Jim Letten and all the people that have held that position. I have the utmost confidence in the president to make that selection.
Is Orleans Parish District Attorney Cannizzaro on the short list?
I have no idea.
Lagniappe: What’s your favorite New Orleans restaurant?
I just went to Emeril’s for lunch. My favorite restaurant? I like GW Fins. My most-frequented spot would be the St. Roch Market, that’s our lunch hangout. I love the passion that people have for the city. It reminds me very much of home, which is Boston. I love the sense of community. Not only are people passionate and proud of their city, but they’re welcoming.
Is there something you wish you’d been able to accomplish before you left?
My only regret is that I would have liked another year in New Orleans — I just like being here. But I’m really looking forward to Chicago because it’s a new opportunity and a great city. I’m very satisfied that we have good people here to defend people’s rights and protect the state of Louisiana.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.