A state agency that disciplines lawyers has recommended that former federal prosecutor Salvador “Sal” Perricone receive a one-year suspension from practicing law for the online rants that contributed to a mistrial in the Danziger Bridge shooting case.
Perricone rose from a New Orleans Police Department officer to become one of the top lieutenants to former longtime U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. His career came crashing down when he acknowledged in 2012 to leaving thousands of comments on nola.com under pseudonyms, including comments about active cases at his office.
The commenting scandal led U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt in 2013 to toss out the convictions of five police officers involved in the Danziger Bridge shooting days after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent police cover-up.
What Engelhardt termed “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct” also led to the resignations of Letten and another top prosecutor who admitted to making several dozen online postings, Jan Mann.
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Perricone and Mann both agreed to give up the practice of law in federal court in 2014. They have faced discipline before the state bar ever since.
Charles Plattsmier, the chief disciplinary counsel for the state's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, said that Mann’s case has been set aside because she is on disability inactive status.
The case against Perricone, however, has moved forward despite his voluntary, interim suspension from the practice of law on the state level. On Jan. 2, a Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board hearing committee recommended that Perricone receive a year’s suspension.
The recommendation will be reviewed by the full board, which in turn will make a recommendation to the state Supreme Court. The high court has final say on whether and how to discipline Perricone.
The committee detailed some of Perricone’s thousands of comments. In one instance, he weighed in on businessman Fred Heebe’s River Birch landfill, which was accused of paying bribes to get a contract to receive debris after Katrina.
“Heebe comes from a long line of corruptors,” Perricone wrote under one of his pseudonyms. “Heebe’s goose is cooked.”
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That comment was deemed especially damaging because Perricone was a member of a prosecution team targeting River Birch's owners. Amid the fallout from the commenting scandal, prosecutors eventually dropped the case they had been building for years.
Perricone also commented on the police shooting of several civilians at the Danziger Bridge days after Katrina and on the subsequent police cover-up.
“NONE of these guys should have been given a badge. … You put crap in — you get crap out,” Perricone said, using an online alias.
Perricone was not a member of the prosecution team in the Danziger Bridge case, but Engelhardt later found that his comments could have influenced jurors.
Perricone has long since accepted responsibility for making the postings. Much of the hearing committee’s discussion about his potential punishment centered on his explanation for the utterances as well as the ethics rules in place at the time for online commenting by prosecutors.
In his defense, Perricone called a psychologist who said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of gruesome deaths he had witnessed as a police officer and FBI agent. He also said he was under a great deal of stress as a result of the “rampant” public corruption he investigated after Katrina.
Perricone said he thought posting online would “help him deal with the stress of his work as a U.S. attorney,” according to the hearing committee report.
The committee said it was “skeptical” of the PTSD diagnosis as well as the notion that the condition spurred him to post online rants. However, it did note that he was prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia drugs during the period in which he made his online postings.
The hearing committee said it was difficult to decide which legal standard to use in judging Perricone. At the time of his online comments, there were no federal rules prohibiting government lawyers from making pseudonymous comments. It wasn't until 2014 that the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidelines banning such postings.
Nevertheless, the hearing committee said, it was clear that Perricone knowingly broke the rules around publicizing criminal cases. The committee said a two-year suspension, with one year of that suspension deferred, would be appropriate.
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The committee said that one factor loomed large in favor of a stern punishment. At the time of Perricone's postings, it said, "the U.S. Attorney’s Office was viewed as a beacon of hope and comfort for the citizens of the Greater New Orleans Area. This beacon of hope and comfort was heavily damaged by (Perricone), a harm that will be longstanding.”
Perricone declined to comment on the hearing committee’s recommendation.
“I don’t talk to The Advocate under no reasons,” he said.