The state agency that disciplines lawyers has recommended that Sal Perricone be disbarred for the inflammatory postings he made online while serving as a federal prosecutor in New Orleans, saying the former assistant U.S. attorney showed the "poorest of judgment" and "should have known his actions had the potential to wreak havoc."
The Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board excoriated Perricone this week in a report to the state Supreme Court, rejecting his contention that his vitriolic rants were attributable to the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered after witnessing "gruesome deaths" as a New Orleans police officer and FBI agent.
The commenting scandal led to the retirement of U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and prompted a federal judge to overturn the convictions of five police officers involved in the notorious Danziger Bridge shooting and cover-up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Perricone and the state's Office of Disciplinary Counsel argued that a "public reprimand" and three-year suspension from practicing law would be an appropriate punishment.
The disciplinary board disagreed, finding that Perricone "tarnished the reputation of the U.S. Attorney's Office" and diminished "the public's faith in the legal system."
He violated his duties to the federal government, the public and the legal profession, the board said, noting the disciplinary case is without precedent in Louisiana. "Given the totality of the circumstances, especially (Perricone's) intentional conduct and the serious harm, the board finds that disbarment is the baseline sanction," it said.
The Louisiana Supreme Court will have the final say on how Perricone will be disciplined. He has been on "voluntary suspension" and not practiced law since leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office in March 2012.
Perricone hid behind online pseudonyms for years, authoring more than 2,600 comments under news articles on nola.com — many of them involving active cases — between 2007 and 2012. Using an array of aliases, he took aim at judges, insisting one of them "loves killers"; allegedly corrupt politicians; the New Orleans Police Department; and even his co-workers.
Perricone, a top Letten lieutenant, finally unmasked himself when confronted by his boss, owning up to a pattern of misconduct that Letten later described as the "stupidest thing I've ever seen in my life."
"I'm the blogger," Perricone told Letten in March 2012, according to a U.S. Justice Department investigation. "Nobody else knew. It was all me."
The Justice Department determined that another former top aide of Letten's, Jan Mann, also posted similar online comments, but to a far lesser extent. The government identified about 40 anonymous comments that Mann posted between November 2011 and March 2012.
Perricone and Mann both agreed to give up the practice of law in federal courts in 2014. The state disciplinary case against Mann has been set aside because she is on disability inactive status.
The disciplinary board outlined a number of federal cases derailed by Perricone's online commenting, including an investigation into the River Birch landfill co-owned by businessman Fred Heebe. The firm was accused of paying bribes to get a contract to receive debris after Katrina.
"Heebe comes from a long line of corrupters," Perricone wrote under one of his pseudonyms. "Heebe's goose is cooked."
That comment was especially damaging, the board found, because Perricone had been a member of the prosecution team targeting River Birch's owners. Prosecutors eventually dropped the case they had been building for years amid the fallout from the commenting scandal.
Perricone also commented on the Danziger Bridge shooting, a post-Katrina scandal in which New Orleans police opened fire on a half-dozen unarmed people, killing two, including a mentally handicapped man, and injuring four others.
"NONE of these guys should have been given a badge. ... You put crap in — you get crap out," Perricone wrote, using an online alias.
Perricone had not been a member of the prosecution team in the Danziger case. But then-U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt found the comments could have influenced jurors and represented "grotesque prosecutorial misconduct."
The judge ruled the officers should get a new trial following their convictions. The officers later reached plea deals with the Justice Department that resulted in sharply reduced prison sentences.
"The Danziger Bridge trial was a lengthy, complex, and widely publicized matter to which several attorneys, court staff, jurors, and others contributed a significant amount of time and effort," the Attorney Disciplinary Board wrote. Perricone's "conduct was a causative factor in this monumental undertaking starting over."
Perricone, in a bid to save his law license, called a psychologist who told the disciplinary board that the former prosecutor suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his law enforcement career.
He added that Perricone had been under a great deal of stress due to the "rampant" public corruption he sought to root out following Katrina. Perricone believed that venting online would "help him deal with the stress of his work as a U.S. attorney," according to the disciplinary board's report.
The board also considered testimony from Letten's successor as U.S. attorney, Kenneth Polite, who said that much of his tenure had been spent "dealing with the aftermath of the scandal" caused by Perricone's online commenting.
The office has dealt with a flurry of appeals and other claims by federal defendants that their proceedings were tainted by Perricone's misconduct.
Perricone did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. He has written two novels since leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office.