Eleven years ago, after federal agents broke down the front door of Jacques Morial’s French Quarter townhouse while executing a search warrant, a group of influential black ministers gathered at the 7th Ward restaurant owned by political operative Stan “Pampy” Barre to protest the high-handed tactics.
More broadly, they complained of a federal law enforcement apparatus that they claimed was devoting disproportionate resources to taking on powerful black officials — including former Mayor Marc Morial, Barre’s political patron and Jacques Morial’s older brother.
When Barre himself was charged in an indictment that exposed corrupt business practices in Marc Morial’s administration months later, a lawyer for one of Barre’s co-defendants charged that the feds were “trying to lynch the Marc Morial administration.”
Thus began a full-throated effort to portray federal law enforcement — and in particular the office led by U.S. Attorney Jim Letten — as essentially a political operation, one that made a point of targeting Democrats in general and black officials in particular.
The contention became a rallying cry in some of the city’s black publications and on talk radio, and an impetus for some black leaders — many of whom were not in any kind of trouble — to call for Letten’s removal.
It was amid that backdrop that Sal Perricone, then part of Letten’s management team, posted a series of pseudonymous comments that were racially insensitive at best and nakedly racist at worst. Among them: a post in which Perricone, disguised as “campstblue,” disparaged those attending the Essence Festival. In another, he complained of the results of “30 years of black rule” in New Orleans.
Still another said flatly: “One of our founding fathers said it best. …. The Negro is not given to reflection, but to sensation.”
It’s almost impossible to say what Perricone’s intemperate comments prove about the office as a whole — and in particular, whether the views he expressed had any effect on the justice that was being dispensed.
But a report completed in December 2013 and released last week by the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility highlights the “racial animus” of some of Perricone’s remarks. It’s the first time the department has ever addressed the issue head-on.
“Some of Perricone’s postings can reasonably be interpreted as evidencing racial bias against African-Americans,” the report says in part.
Later, it adds: “The public must have confidence that charging decisions are made in a fair manner without regard to race or other prohibited factors. Perricone’s postings, once his identity was revealed, could have caused the public to suspect that he might have conducted his professional duties as an (assistant U.S. attorney) in a racially biased manner.”
The OPR report offers no conclusion about whether the attitudes revealed in Perricone’s online pontificating actually affected decisions on whether or how to prosecute the myriad cases he touched as a senior prosecutor and one of Letten’s most trusted deputies. Indeed, the report says such an inquiry was outside its scope.
In an emailed response to questions, Perricone rejected the idea that he brought a racial animus to any case.
“I am not a racist and never let anyone’s race enter to any decision I have made in my career,” he wrote. “It’s been my experience that the race card is the last card ever played. Hence, your story. Print what you like; you usually do, the truth notwithstanding.”
In another email, he said: “I have never prosecuted anyone because of their race. In fact, on reflection, I have investigated and prosecuted more white people than blacks. ... Nor do I know of any other prosecutor who based race on their decision to prosecute anyone. We always followed the evidence — nothing else.”
Perricone said more or less the same thing to the Office of Professional Responsibility, whose report notes that he “strongly objected” to the notion that his posts showed racial prejudice.
He told investigators he was “NOT racist” and called his musings “simple parody and satire.” More important, he said his record showed he had never conducted himself in a “racially biased” manner over a 40-year law enforcement career that included stints in the New Orleans Police Department and the FBI as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
An appendix containing Perricone’s complete response to the report has not been provided to The New Orleans Advocate by the OPR.
But the report says Perricone “misses the point” and that it’s the appearance of bias that counts. The real issue, it says, is “the effect Perricone’s speech had on the community he was hired to serve. Regardless of his intent, Perricone’s speech … could have eroded the community’s trust in his actions and the decisions of the (U.S. Attorney’s Office).”
Influence on cases?
Local observers, including defense lawyers and past targets of government investigations, offered a range of views on whether Perricone’s anonymous comments could have affected specific cases or were suggestive of a troubled office.
Former federal prosecutor Pat Fanning, who defended the Morials, quipped at the time of the 2004 raid on Jacques Morial’s home that he was surprised that then-U.S. Rep. David Vitter, a key Letten supporter, wasn’t manning the battering ram — a reference to what he claimed were political motives behind the probe.
Last week, Fanning said he doesn’t think Perricone’s racially tinged comments necessarily reflected a world view at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“But I think Sal Perricone was a racist, and I do think his racial views would have affected his charging decisions and any input he had into charging decisions,” said Fanning, who is white. “If you ask me, can I point to a particular case where his views affected the outcome of a case or a decision, no, I can’t do that. It’s too subjective.”
Robert Jenkins defended former Mayor Ray Nagin and former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, both of whom were convicted in corruption cases. In one of his racially tinged comments, Perricone questioned why Broussard had hired Jenkins.
“What is the former president of white suburbia doing with a black Tulane and Broad lawyer?” Perricone wondered, posting under his alias “Henry L. Mencken1951.”
Jenkins sees Perricone’s postings in much the way Fanning does — as part of what the prosecutor carried with him.
“I don’t have an evidence (Perricone’s beliefs) played a role” in a specific case, Jenkins said. “But in a supervisory role like he was in, you often went to a grand jury. And your perceptions and your beliefs would play a role in how you present a case to the grand jury. And that’s problematic.”
Barre, who served a five-year sentence for skimming money from a City Hall contract, said in an interview that he never felt the U.S. Attorney’s Office had a racial bias. But he is resolute in his belief that the office targeted Marc Morial and his friends for political reasons.
He said several Morial insiders, including political operative Billy Schultz, lawyer Roy Rodney and Jacques Morial, were prosecuted for misdemeanors the office usually eschews in favor of bigger crimes.
“I think it was all political,” Barre said. “They didn’t like Marc Morial. Look, they broke down Jacques Morial’s door over some tax s***-. I’ve never seen such a political environment in my life.”
Jacques Morial declined to comment for this story.
Others said the Perricone comments might say less about Perricone than they do about the justice system as a whole.
Former City Councilman Oliver Thomas, who served a three-year federal prison sentence for accepting bribes from Barre, said he thinks the commenting scandal proves Perricone “thought he worked in an environment where he could be that and say that.”
Thomas, who is black, added: “We are reluctant to acknowledge that we’re operating in a system that has racial and class biases, period.”
And Tim Meche, a defense attorney who has been critical of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Perricone’s comments, while unpalatable, are not as far out of the mainstream as people would like to think.
“I think Sal said things that the vast majority of white people in this city have said, thought or heard their friends say,” Meche said. “I think this gives us the opportunity to have an honest discourse about this.”
Meche, who is white, added that he sees no evidence that any decisions made by federal prosecutors were made on the basis of race.
Hard to prove, disprove
Letten, who retired amid the online-commenting scandal that engulfed his office, declined comment for this story.
But he has always rejected the notion that race or politics played any part in decisions his office made about whom to charge or investigate.
In a departure from usual practice, Letten was retained as U.S. attorney by President Barack Obama in 2009 despite his Republican Party affiliation, to the chagrin of some prominent Democrats.
“I don’t want anyone ever to be able to assert that what we did was to clear the deck politically, because it’s not true,” he told The Times-Picayune upon his 2012 retirement. “If you look at the cases we’ve done, we’ve forged ahead without regard to power, wealth, politics, influence, religion, race, position in society, ideology. Without any of those things. Because it just doesn’t matter.”
It’s true that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has targeted corrupt politicians of all races. A 2014 Advocate story noted that, with the conviction of former Mayor Ray Nagin, the office had sent 17 area politicians to prison since Hurricane Katrina. Of those, seven were white and 10 were black.
The office also aggressively prosecuted David Duke, the racist former state representative and gubernatorial candidate, for fraud.
But it would be unreasonable to expect that the race of corrupt officials would be precisely proportional with the demographics of the political leadership in the 13-parish region the Eastern District of Louisiana covers. Corruption cases are so rare — even under Letten, the office prosecuted perhaps half a dozen corrupt politicians in a busy year — that the stats really don’t prove anything.
It’s also worth noting that defense attorneys often will say almost anything they think might help their clients — it’s their job, after all. Even with Letten out, and a black U.S. attorney, Kenneth Polite Jr., appointed by a black president, in his place, the strategy hasn’t gone away.
Just recently, Lisa Crinel, a former Zulu queen who is charged in a broad Medicare fraud scheme, claimed in a legal filing that the office has moved more aggressively to seek forfeiture of her assets than it has done against similarly situated white defendants.
Her motion, which seeks the return of some property and the suppression of some evidence, is pending.
To date, the courts have rejected every motion for relief on the grounds that Perricone’s comments betrayed a racial bias on the part of the office, and that’s unlikely to change.
In the end, the real damage of the commentary may be to public perception.
Arthur “Buddy” Lemann, a defense attorney who has enthusiastically attacked the U.S. Attorney’s Office at nearly every turn, said he takes no real satisfaction when he lands a punch.
“It’s like when a football player knocks the s***- out of another player, and when he doesn’t get up, you make the sign of the cross,” Lemann said.
“I’m really disappointed” at what has been revealed over the last three years, Lemann added. “I think it’s terrible that Perricone was doing these things, and it’s been an embarrassment to the whole criminal justice system.
“Some of my African-American clients over the years have felt that Letten’s office was more prone to go after them because of who they were than, for example, members of the Boston Club. And if someone felt that way, it was certainly catapulted by this kind of behavior.”
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.