Sal Perricone

Sal Perricone

It’s been 2,407 days since Sal Perricone came clean about his online shenanigans when his boss, then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, confronted him in March 2012.

Perricone's confession, that he posted scores of online riffs about live federal cases while he worked as a top-ranking federal prosecutor, would spark a chain of events that brought shame on the once-vaunted U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans.

Letten and his top lieutenant, Jan Mann, would soon follow Perricone out the door. Also gone would be the criminal convictions and lengthy prison terms handed to five New Orleans police officers in the infamous Danziger Bridge killings and cover-up after Hurricane Katrina.

Former federal prosecutor felled by comments on River Birch investigation weighs in on current landfill saga

A federal judge cited the online posting scandal as Exhibit A in a ruling that found those convictions had been hopelessly tainted by what he called “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct.”

The fallout from Perricone’s online rantings, in some cases typed out from his office computer, drew center stage Tuesday as the Louisiana Supreme Court debated what punishment the former police officer, FBI agent and federal prosecutor ought to receive.

It was the closest thing Perricone will ever get to a sentencing hearing over the domino effect from his pseudonymous online musings — a belated judicial assessment of just how much he was to blame for the wide-ranging aftermath of the scandal.

Perricone has admitted to several violations of state ethics rules via his online musings. At issue Tuesday was only his punishment, and whether the court decides that he meant to influence the outcome of prosecutions by throwing anonymous flames on legal fires.

A hearing committee recommended that Perricone’s law license be suspended for two years, with one year of that deferred. But the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board rejected that punishment as too lenient for Perricone, who already has agreed never to practice law again in federal courts in Louisiana.

The board instead recommended disbarment, finding that Perricone intentionally violated an ethical rule barring prosecutors from making “extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused.”

Perricone tarnished the U.S. Attorney’s Office for years to come and undermined confidence in the legal system, the disciplinary board found.

On Tuesday, several justices homed in on Perricone’s main defense: that he suffered from what his lawyer, Kirk Granier, described as “complex post-traumatic stress disorder.” It was Perricone’s PTSD, Granier argued, that drove him to cut loose at the keyboard, heaping scorn on judges, defense lawyers and the accused alike.

Former prosecutor Sal Perricone, the prolific online commenter, should be disbarred, board says

Granier tallied 47 episodes he said may have contributed to Perricone’s disorder, from seeing dead bodies to being shot at and getting into fisticuffs while on the job as a deputy, New Orleans police officer or FBI agent.

“He has been suffering traumatic events since his 20s," Granier argued.

Chief Justice Bernette Johnson expressed skepticism over that claim, which was supported by a diagnosis that came in 2016, and the precedent that might be set by granting leniency, particularly since Perricone clearly tried to conceal his actions.

“We’re not dealing with a criminal standard,” Johnson said. “Are we saying this post-traumatic stress prevented him from doing the right thing? How do we treat the concealment?”

Granier called Perricone’s “poor judgment” a symptom of his PTSD, which he likened to a combat-related affliction.

“He didn’t kill himself. He didn’t turn to drug abuse. He didn’t turn to alcohol abuse. He turned to online (commenting). It was an easy fit,” Granier argued.

But some justices said they feared accepting Perricone’s claim of a mental condition would make it difficult ever to discipline lawyers for misconduct.

“Isn’t this a slippery issue in terms of policy? There are a lot of lawyers under stress,” Justice Scott Crichton asked.

“Are we dealing with diminished capacity such that this type of conduct is excusable?” asked Justice James Genovese.

Chief Disciplinary Counsel Charles Plattsmier dismissed the notion that Perricone had any doubt that his online commentary was wrong.

Plattsmier noted that Letten had testified that he and Perricone had once led a legal seminar “to speak to this very issue: leaks and extrajudicial comments, including on social media.”

The question, he said, wasn’t whether Perricone knew he was breaking the rules, but whether he intended to meddle in the outcome of criminal cases.

In any case, Granier downplayed the role of Perricone’s online commentary in former U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt's decision to throw out the Danziger Bridge shooting convictions. All five officers would later agree to plead guilty in exchange for steeply reduced prison terms.

Plattsmier dismissed that idea, quoting Engelhardt’s order reversing the convictions. He went further, noting that federal prosecutors ultimately dropped a lengthy investigation into Jefferson Parish businessman Fred Heebe.

Heebe had hired a forensic linguist who ultimately unmasked Perricone as the voice behind a handful of online aliases commenting on federal prosecutions.

“The most significant damage done was in the Danziger Bridge case,” Plattsmier said, but “it had, we believe, an adverse impact on the (Heebe) case as well.”

The disciplinary board also noted testimony from Letten and his successor, Kenneth Polite, who left office in March 2017 after more than three years.

Polite testified that “a large portion of his tenure as U.S. attorney was spent dealing with the aftermath of the scandal caused by the online commenting of (Perricone) and Ms. Mann,” according to the board’s recommendation.

Granier also blamed the media for what he said was overblowing Perricone’s role in the Danziger debacle. 

The Supreme Court did not immediately rule on Perricone’s punishment.

Two of the justices, John Weimer and Greg Guidry, recused themselves from the matter. Weimer is related to a witness in the case. Guidry is a former federal prosecutor in New Orleans, where he worked alongside Perricone.

Retired judges Gay Gaskins and Hillary Crain took their places on the bench.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.