The Louisiana federal prosecutor known for his prolific online rants (about cases his office was prosecuting, no less) has been held to account by the state’s highest court. Six years after former senior litigation counsel Sal Perricone of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans was fired from his job for posting on Nola.com, the Louisiana Supreme Court has taken away his license to practice law. Perricone was a frequent but anonymous online poster who commented on criminal defendants, their attorneys and others involved in litigation with his office. In addition to costing his job and ultimately his ability to practice law, Perricone’s authorship of the inappropriate posts also led to his boss’s resignation and the collapse of the high-profile Danziger Bridge police shooting case.
Matt Sledge at The Advocate reports:
[I]n 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.
Perricone’s undoing is a study in what wealth and resources can do to unearth prosecutorial misconduct on the front end of a criminal prosecution rather than the far more common scenario in which it is discovered on appeal, decades after a great miscarriage of justice has occurred. It was a rich local landfill owner who was being investigated on corruption charges who first discovered – with the help of a forensic linguist he hired – that Perricone and his colleague, First Assistant Jan Mann, were making anonymous comments about him using pseudonyms. In a staggering collection of over 2,000 online comments Perricone made, he touched on cases his office was prosecuting in nearly ten percent of them. One was the infamous Danziger Bridge case, in which New Orleans police officers were accused of opening fire on a group of unarmed, peaceful civilians in the days following Hurricane Katrina – killing two – and then trying to cover it up. As a direct result of multiple federal prosecutors’ extrajudicial comments to the public under fake names, the convictions of the police officers were overturned. They never went back to trial, instead pleading out their cases in exchange for terms ranging from three to twelve years.
At the time the scandal was uncovered, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten was the longest-serving in the country. But his handling of the situation generated fierce criticism, and he ultimately resigned. A federal judge who conducted a probe into the prosecutorial misconduct described it as “grotesque.”
Regular readers of this blog will know that to say that Sal Perricone’s disbarment for prosecutorial misconduct is a rarity is an understatement. (See, for example, the latter half of this post by Radley Balko.) We have covered this case for six years, and did not think we would see the day. Though Perricone may ask for reinstatement to the bar in five years, at sixty-seven years of age it seems unlikely, particularly given his continued refusal to take responsibility for the consequences of his unethical behavior.
Sledge at The Advocate reports that, immediately following his own story going online at Nola.com, Perricone logged in to register his disgust at the outcome.
“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.