Sal Perricone, the former federal prosecutor, hid behind a computer for years, assailing criminals, New Orleans attorneys and judges in vitriolic comments he penned under online news articles using an array of aliases.
But when confronted in March 2012 by his boss, former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, Perricone removed his mask in a heartbeat, owning up to a pattern of misconduct that Letten would describe as the “stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Perricone, a veteran litigator and trusted Letten lieutenant, did not have to answer the question, Letten told him that day. But if he chose to, Letten warned, the answer had better be the truth.
“I’m the blogger,” Perricone blurted out, sucking the air out of Letten’s office.
“Nobody else knew,” he added, apologizing for embarrassing the office. “It was all me.”
A distraught Perricone buried his face in his hands on Letten’s couch, as Letten made a series of calls to Washington, D.C., alerting the deputy attorney general and the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility to what he recognized as “misconduct on its face.”
That office’s inquiry was completed in December 2013 but was not made public. That changed Monday, when the Department of Justice delivered a copy to The New Orleans Advocate in response to a Freedom of Information Act request sent by the newspaper in May.
The report — portions of which have been cited in rulings from the federal bench — castigates Perricone and Letten’s former top aide, Jan Mann, for authoring online rants deemed “inappropriate at best and offensive and even outrageous at worst.” It says that Perricone and Mann showed “exceedingly poor judgment,” committed “intentional professional misconduct” and violated the rules of professional conduct “by making statements regarding the integrity or qualifications of judges” that they knew to be false.
Mann comes in for extra scorn in the report because she put herself in charge of managing the office’s inquiry into Perricone’s misconduct, without revealing that she had engaged in similar behavior.
“The (Justice) Department requires federal prosecutors to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the highest professional standards when they represent the United States,” the report says. “Perricone and Mann failed to uphold these standards.”
The contours of the Office of Professional Responsibility probe have previously emerged in various court filings, including the key findings that Letten had been kept in the dark about the online commenting and that Perricone and Mann acted on their own, independently of each other.
But the full 152-page report, while heavily redacted, offers the most comprehensive overview to date of a scandal that ultimately led to Letten’s resignation as well as those of Perricone and Mann, and that prompted a federal judge to throw out the convictions of several New Orleans police officers found guilty of shooting half a dozen unarmed people on the Danziger Bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Among the report’s new details: A federal prosecutor in Utah was tasked three years ago with conducting a criminal inquiry into the commenting, including suspicions that Perricone might have divulged secret grand jury material in some of his online screeds. In one instance, a 2012 Times-Picayune story revealed that Perricone posted broad hints about a hitherto-unknown criminal probe into then-City Councilman James Carter, an inquiry that ultimately did not lead to charges.
The Utah prosecutor, Stewart Walz, reported in November 2012 that the evidence “did not support a finding that Perricone violated any criminal law,” the report shows.
That limited the scope of the OPR inquiry, which nevertheless involved 50 interviews with current and former Justice Department officials, an extensive review of internal documents and government email, and three surveys of personnel within the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans, some of whom suspected, “to varying degrees,” that Perricone had been commenting on pending cases.
The OPR probe did not establish that any U.S. Attorney’s Office employees had been “sufficiently aware of Perricone’s online posting activity to trigger a clear and unambiguous duty to report their suspicions to supervisors.”
Those speaking to OPR investigators included Letten, who portrayed Perricone’s behavior as a colossal — and unexpected — betrayal. In fact, it was Perricone whom Letten had directed “to give lectures to agents, attorneys and police officers about the pitfalls in the new electronic discovery age and the dangers of creating electronic communications that could affect a case,” the report says.
“Letten said that, even looking back on events, he did not believe there was any ‘clue’ that should have alerted him to Perricone’s posting activities,” the report says.
“I don’t believe any of us ever even thought it was possible that someone from this office would be doing that, much less Sal Perricone,’” Letten told investigators. The notion that Perricone would be involved in such a reckless hobby, he added, “was still hard for me to get my arms around when this thing came to light.”
In all, the report concludes, Perricone posted some 2,600 anonymous comments on nola.com between November 2007 and March 2012 “on a wide variety of subjects, including comments on cases to which he personally was assigned to prosecute or that were being prosecuted by his colleagues.” He took aim at judges, insisting one of them “loves killers”; corrupt politicians; the New Orleans Police Department; and even co-workers.
While Perricone sought to distance himself from the most racially insensitive remarks — “Didn’t Katrina demonstrate what 30 years of black rule can do to a city?” — the OPR found he had, in fact, authored those as well, posted under the moniker “campstblue.”
The extent of Mann’s commenting paled in comparison to Perricone’s, the OPR found, consisting of 40 anonymous comments posted between November 2011 and March 2012. But the report reserved some of its harshest criticism for Mann, who took months to acknowledge her role in the scandal and handled much of the initial fallout from Perricone’s admissions.
Despite her protestations to the contrary, the report concludes that Mann had not alerted Letten to her own habit of online commenting when Perricone’s activity became public in March 2012. Instead, Mann only admitted her involvement months later, when Fred Heebe, a landfill owner under federal investigation, filed a civil lawsuit alleging that Mann had posted defamatory comments about him online under the pseudonym “eweman.”
Mann appeared “visibly shaken and upset” after Letten told her, in November 2012, that many of her colleagues “felt betrayed and expressed their views that Mann could not continue to work in the office,” the report says.
During the critical months between Perricone’s admission and her own, the report says, Mann played an integral role in the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s response to the Perricone fallout. While not directly lying to Justice Department officials, the report says, she deceived them at virtually every turn. She helped field motions for new trials filed by criminal defendants and provided information to Walz, the Utah prosecutor, and to the Office of Professional Responsibility.
“Mann was heavily involved with almost every matter relating to Perricone’s nola.com postings,” the report says, “including recusal decisions, internal administrative and criminal investigations and responding to motions in pending litigation.”
Mann’s dishonesty extended to her dealings with Thomas Anderson, the deputy general counsel of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, who had been tasked with deciding which cases Letten’s office should recuse itself from prosecuting after Perricone’s unmasking. Anderson told the OPR he had struggled over whether to recommend Letten’s office be recused from the proceedings involving Aaron Broussard, the disgraced Jefferson Parish president who pleaded guilty in 2012 to corruption charges.
Mann said she believed Letten’s office could continue to oversee Broussard’s case, citing Perricone’s lack of involvement in his prosecution. At one point, she said she felt “the misconduct aspect of Perricone’s comments has been blown way out of proportion,” and in one email to the OPR, she described Perricone’s actions as “a gray area for me, although I definitely think it was foolish and imprudent.”
However, the OPR report notes, she failed to disclose to Anderson, or any other Justice Department officials, “that she, herself, had posted three comments on nola.com in response to articles about the Broussard case.” Had he known of Mann’s commenting, Anderson told OPR investigators, he would have recommended the U.S. Attorney’s Office recuse itself from the Broussard case.
“Mann gambled with the (Justice) Department’s credibility and the good will it enjoyed with the judiciary, defense counsel and the public, at great cost to herself and, more important, to the department,” the report says.
Broussard’s attorneys have unsuccessfully sought to have his guilty plea thrown out on several occasions on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct in the case.
Federal investigators concluded that Mann’s assertion that she had, in some fashion, informed Letten about her online posting activity in March 2012 is “not supported by the evidence.” Letten told the OPR that Mann had not been “forthright” in their dealings.
“Mann’s defense of her conduct is without merit,” the report says. The Louisiana rules of professional conduct do “not exempt attorneys who view themselves as irreplaceable.”
The report found that Perricone’s and Mann’s attempt “to hide under a cloak of anonymity was rash and fraught with peril.”
“Perricone and Mann were aware that, in the past, the careless and inappropriate use of social media had caused substantial problems in the prosecution of cases,” the report says. “They also knew or should have known that anonymous posters of comments online could be unmasked at any moment.”
Court records unsealed last year showed that Perricone and Mann petitioned the court to be allowed to resign from the roll of attorneys in U.S. District Court rather than face disciplinary proceedings. They may yet face discipline at the state level.
Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.