The Louisiana Supreme Court on Wednesday disbarred Salvador “Sal” Perricone, the former federal prosecutor whose prolific online commenting under pseudonyms began a scandal that led a judge to throw out the jury verdicts in the Danziger Bridge police shooting case.
The controversy plunged the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans into disarray and led to Perricone’s taking a voluntary leave of absence from the law.
Still, the ex-prosecutor had fought disbarment, arguing that he posted scores of comments on nola.com about his office’s cases because he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But in a joint, unsigned opinion with no dissent, the justices said Perricone’s “conscious decision to vent his anger by posting caustic, extrajudicial comments about pending cases strikes at the heart of the neutral dispassionate control which is the foundation of our system.”
"Our decision today must send a strong message to (Perricone) and to all the members of the bar that a lawyer’s ethical obligations are not diminished by the mask of anonymity provided by the Internet,” they continued.
Retired Judges Gay Gaskins and Hillary Crain sat in for Justices John Weimer and Greg Guidry, who recused themselves from the case. Weimer is related to a witness in the case, and Guidry worked with Perricone as a federal prosecutor.
Perricone had worked his way up from New Orleans police officer to FBI agent and then to a senior position as a prosecutor under then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten when the commenting scandal broke in 2012.
It was soon revealed that out of more than 2,600 comments Perricone posted under names like “Henry L. Mencken1951” and “fed up,” some 100 to 200 pertained to his office’s cases.
Among the most prominent cases highlighted in his online rants was the investigation into local landfill magnate Fred Heebe, who had hired big legal guns to fend off a federal corruption case targeting him.
“Heebe comes from a long line of corruptors,” Perricone wrote in one comment.
“Heebe’s goose is cooked,” he added the next day.
A forensic linguist hired by Heebe’s lawyers helped to figure out that Perricone was the author of those comments, which led Perricone to admit to them in March 2012. Heebe was never charged with a crime after prosecutors dropped their investigation of him.
Perricone also had to admit writing about the Sept. 4, 2005, shooting of six civilians, two of whom died, on the Danziger Bridge. Although he did not work on that case himself, he predicted that the officers involved in the post-Hurricane Katrina scandal would be convicted.
“NONE of these guys should have ever been given a badge,” he wrote during the trial. “You put crap in — you get crap out!!!”
Months after Perricone's ouster, Letten’s top deputy, Jan Mann — who had been assigned to look into the online posting scandal after Perricone’s unmasking — was forced to admit having herself posted comments under nola.com stories about pending cases.
By the end of 2012, Letten had left the office after an 11-year stint, along with Perricone, Mann and her husband, senior prosecutor Jim Mann.
A federal judge, Kurt Engelhardt, launched his own investigation, which turned up a third Department of Justice lawyer, Karla Dobinski, who had also posted online comments on the Danziger Bridge case during the trial.
Dobinski played a role in the Danziger prosecution from Washington, D.C., where she served in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Engelhardt later suggested that top DOJ officials in the Obama administration had tried to shield her identity.
Citing “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct,” largely related to the posting scandal, Engelhardt in September 2013 threw out the jury convictions in the Danziger case and the sentences subsequently handed to five former New Orleans police officers.
Those officers pleaded guilty in 2016 in exchange for much shorter prison terms than those Engelhardt originally gave them.
Appearing before the state Supreme Court in October, Perricone's attorney downplayed the role his client's comments played in the downfall of the first Danziger prosecution, noting that the judge cited other factors as well.
Lawyer Kirk Granier also said Perricone had been subjected to 47 separate episodes — including seeing dead bodies and being shot while he was a cop — which gave him PTSD.
But the justices specifically rejected Perricone's claims that PTSD should spare him from disbarment.
They said Perricone’s “own testimony reveals he was aware that he should not post these comments, yet he decided to do so anyway. Clearly, any mental disability from which (he) suffered did not prevent him from knowing his actions were wrong. Under these circumstances, we find absolutely no support for the conclusion that (Perricone) has proven his mental condition caused the misconduct.”
Perricone may ask for reinstatement to the bar in five years.
However, "the sanction of disbarment imposed at this point in (his) profession, at the age of 67, is arguably akin to permanent disbarment and essentially a legal profession death sentence," Justice Scott Crichton said in a concurring opinion.
Perricone and his attorney did not immediately return requests for comment. But shortly after The Advocate's story was posted on the newspaper's Facebook page, Perricone — using his real name — logged on to register his dismay.
"Those of you who relish in this decision are just as corrupt as the State of Louisiana," he wrote. "This decision is wrong on so many levels. ... Congratulations! I am now liberated to speak my mind consistent with the First Amendment — and I will!!"
His post went on to make allegations of bribe-taking and other chicanery.
Staff writer John Simerman contributed to this report.