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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Times-Picayune EDITORIAL: Keep FBI's focus

Tuesday, April 29, 2008 - Jim Bernazzani had a notable tenure as special agent in charge of the FBI in New Orleans -- as memorable perhaps as his abrupt exit last week. Having arrived just months before Katrina, Mr. Bernazzani made it his mission to root out public corruption, overseeing high profile probes including that of former City Council President Oliver Thomas. Mr. Bernazzani also carried out federal efforts to assist local police in their fight against violent crime.

Even in a region known for remarkable and colorful characters, Mr. Bernazzani's tough talk and intensity stood out. Still, it was surprising last week when he publicly indicated his interest in a run for mayor, and he was quickly reassigned to Washington. Dishonest politicians often suggest they are being prosecuted for political reasons. That's one reason why the Hatch Act prohibits FBI agents from engaging in "partisan political activity." Once Mr. Bernazzani spoke of a potential mayoral run, the prudent and appropriate action was removing him from his post.

What's important now is that the FBI's mission in New Orleans continues uninterrupted. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten alluded to this point in a written statement that acknowledged Mr. Bernazzani's service but also noted that hundreds of other law enforcement agents at the federal and local levels will continue to work to make our government more honest and our communities safer.

That's true. But the top FBI agent can set the tone for a field office. As FBI brass in Washington consider a replacement for Mr. Bernazzani, they should look for a seasoned agent who will match his passion and focus in fighting corruption and assisting local agencies. Katrina threw New Orleans' law enforcement and judicial system into chaos. Though some progress has been made -- particularly in the courts -- the city is still in need of the expertise and resources federal law enforcement officials have at their disposal. Mr. Bernazzani understood that -- and we trust the FBI will ensure that his successor does as well.

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