Sal Perricone, the tough-talking former federal prosecutor whose insatiable need to go online and comment on his office’s cases triggered an epic scandal, should have known that “his actions had the potential to wreak havoc,” the state attorney disciplinary board told the Louisiana Supreme Court in its recommendation that Perricone be disbarred.
Of course, just how much havoc Perricone’s bad behavior eventually caused would have been hard for anyone to predict. His lengthy electronic trail of comments, all submitted under assumed handles, caused one of the New Orleans-based U.S. Attorney office’s biggest investigations to be abandoned, and a hugely consequential guilty verdict in the Danziger Bridge post-Katrina police shooting case to be set aside. It led to the downfall of his once widely admired boss, Jim Letten. It forced Letten’s successor, Ken Polite, to spend years cleaning up the damage, according to his testimony.
And Perricone chalked it all up to an excuse — post-traumatic stress from his early days as a cop and the stress of tackling public corruption after Hurricane Katrina — that prosecutors would likely never accept from the people they questioned, some of whom have their own Katrina horror stories, too.
If they’re responsible for what they did despite what they were going through, surely Perricone is fully responsible for openly taunting witnesses, targets and lawyers, and for posting comments like these:
In two big cases involving the late political operative Mose Jefferson and other relatives and associates of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson — whose own, unrelated criminal case was prosecuted in Virginia, not Louisiana — Perricone wrote under one story that “they got the corrupted, now they have to get the corruptor.” Under another piece on NOLA.com, he claimed that “local defense attorneys are just milking these cases for their own ego gratification and financial enrichment. Something sick about our system.”
Perricone wrote that Fred Heebe, the wealthy lawyer and landfill owner who was once a front-runner for the U.S. Attorney job and later the subject of an extensive investigation, “comes from a long line of corruption,” and that “his goose is cooked.” For good measure, he declared a minor player in the case who had just been indicted “GUILTY!!!” and referred to Heebe’s wife, a former Jefferson Parish Council member, as “Queen Jennifer.”
Going after Heebe was a mistake in more ways than one. It was Heebe’s lawyers who were able to unmask Perricone as the serial commenter and set off the series of events that brought him down.
Perricone also weighed in on the prosecution over the horrifying Danziger Bridge shooting by police of unarmed civilians after the 2005 storm, which resulted in two deaths and multiple injuries, and the subsequent cover-up of evidence. A sample: “The only police force to use deadly force throughout the city was the venerable NOPD. Perhaps we would be safer if the NOPD would leave next hurricanes and let the National Guard assume all law enforcement duties. GUILTY AS CHARGED.”
Following guilty verdicts against the cops — and despite a lack of any evidence that jurors had seen the comments, had been swayed by them or could have known that they came from an insider rather than a random crank — federal Judge Kurt Engelhardt claimed that Perricone’s posts, as well as separate comments by a Justice Department lawyer in Washington, created a “carnival atmosphere” that violated the officers’ due process rights. He set aside the verdict and ordered a new trial, which led to the cops pleading guilty and serving less time than they would have under the jury verdict.
According to the disciplinary board’s recommendation, Perricone stipulated that he violated the rules of professional conduct by making “extrajudicial” comments that could prejudice legal proceedings and heighten public condemnation of the accused. He didn’t stipulate that his behavior amounted to a conflict of interest by putting his personal need to “vent” above the interests of his office and of the pursuit of justice, but the committee found that he did that too.
Yes, he did, and on some level, Perricone had to have known that. For a government lawyer sworn to play things by the book, venting in public but under assumed names suggests evidence of a guilty conscience. Don’t they teach that in law school?