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World & Nation

Great Read: His own words help bring down New Orleans prosecutor

Sal Perricone always had something to prove. Growing up poor and Italian in a city dominated by Creoles and Anglos, Perricone found respect on the streets after high school by becoming a cop. He pulled graveyard shifts to put himself through college and eventually took night classes to earn a law degree while serving as a New Orleans police detective.

The law degree helped him jump to the FBI, where he was a special agent for five years. In 1991 he landed at the U.S. attorney’s office in New Orleans, crusading against fraud in a city as known for political corruption as it is for jazz. Over two decades, he went after the Mafia, cops, judges and even a former governor. He became one of New Orleans’ most feared prosecutors.

The people he put behind bars — the thugs, the high-power politicians — were intent on seeing Perricone fall. His enemies left a fake bomb and other death threats on his front porch. They never touched him. Instead, it was his own arrogance and a burning secret resentment toward the world of privilege and power that brought him down.

His prosecutorial misconduct was exposed by a pretentious writing style, particularly his fondness for obscure words found usually only on SAT exams or in the work of Victorian poet Robert Browning.

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The “online 21st century carnival” Perricone created, in the words of one federal judge, swept away nearly the entire leadership of one of the nation’s largest U.S. attorney’s offices and imperiled some of the state’s biggest criminal prosecutions.

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Sitting in his office high up over Poydras Street, New Orleans lawyer Billy Gibbens was scanning NOLA.com, the website of the Times-Picayune newspaper. The site was a magnet for city gossip, so Gibbens made it his business to follow it closely.

Once a U.S. prosecutor, Gibbens was now a defense attorney, often representing clients charged by his former government colleagues. One NOLA.com posting that day in January 2012 caught his eye. A blogger calling himself “Henry L. Mencken1951" asserted his “dubiety,” or dubious reaction, to local high school students trying to stop violence by wearing slogans on T-shirts.

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Gibbens had been tracking Mencken1951 ever since the blogger unleashed highly personal and surprisingly well-informed attacks against one of Gibbens’ clients, Frederick Heebe, a businessman facing a federal investigation over a $160-million landfill contract.

“Heebe comes from a long line of corruptors,” Mencken1951 once posted. “If Heebe had one firing synapse, he would go speak to Letten’s posse and purge himself of this sordid episode.” The reference was to New Orleans U.S. Atty. Jim Letten.

Gibbens eyed the latest post. Dubiety? Where had he seen that word? He pulled out a legal brief filed a month earlier by the U.S. attorney’s office as part of its investigation into Heebe. In the midst of the government’s argument, he found it: “Their representations would be fraught with dubiety.”

Was it a coincidence? Gibbens took his hunch to James R. Fitzgerald, a 20-year FBI veteran specializing in the language of crime who had analyzed writings in big cases such as the Unabomber and anthrax mailings.

Fitzgerald quickly zeroed in on similarities. Mencken1951 and the author of the U.S. attorney’s filing both favored unusual words, including “dubiety” and “redoubt.” Fitzgerald said he found the same words used together only in one other place: an 1869 narrative poem by Browning about the murder trial of a nobleman in Rome.

Heebe was not the only target of Mencken1951 and several predecessor blogs. The online persona derided President Obama and his “West Wing band of Bolsheviks” and posted a disturbing message about then-Mayor C. Ray Nagin: “For all of you who have a penchant for firearms and how they work, Ray Nagin lives on Park Island.”

Judges were a frequent target, once dismissed as “the crap we get on the federal bench.”

The blogger had a particular interest in one of the Justice Department’s most high-profile cases: the prosecution of five New Orleans police officers involved in two fatal shootings of unarmed people on the Danziger Bridge in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina. In 2011, federal prosecutors won civil rights and obstruction of justice cases against the five, who were sentenced to 38 to 65 years in prison.

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Mencken1951 called New Orleans police “a collection of self-centered, self-interested, self-promoting, insular, arrogant, overweening, prevaricating, libidinous fools … who, when not having sex with each other, [are] beating, burning and abusing the citizens. Thank God for the Feds — can you imagine New Orleans without a Federal presence?”

Armed with Fitzgerald’s analysis, Gibbens filed a defamation lawsuit against “Mencken1951,” alleging the anonymous online commenter was someone in the U.S. attorney’s office. The suit noted that there were three assistant U.S. attorneys who signed the government filing, including one of its best-known prosecutors, Sal Perricone. Perricone was born in 1951, the suit pointed out.

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“Is this you?” Letten demanded.

The U.S. attorney was reading Gibbens’ suit and had just hung up with a reporter asking about the allegation. Perricone confessed, and Letten “went white,” Perricone recalled.

Perricone blamed the whole affair on the pressures of the job and burnout. He said he grew increasingly cynical and sullen, tired of crooks who got away and public servants he viewed as inept or abusing their power. He found release on the Internet, he said, adopting a persona brimming with anger and seduced by the illusion of anonymity.

At first it was comments about current events on public message boards. Soon he was venting bitterly and personally — against former colleagues in the Police Department, judges he knew, businessmen he was investigating and anyone else who struck him as a hypocrite.

Perricone posted about 2,600 times over five years, increasing in “frequency and malice,” as a federal judge put it. He became the target of two Justice Department investigations, facing criminal charges if he were shown to have revealed secret grand jury testimony.

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Some of his posts were laughably self-serving. “Go Sal” he commented about his prosecution of a politician in 2009. At another point, he repeatedly attacked candidates for New Orleans superintendent of police as he applied for the job himself.

A few days after Perricone admitted to the posts, he was told to hand in his retirement papers. News of Perricone’s forced retirement swept through the New Orleans legal community. Within three months, attorneys for the five police officers in the Danziger Bridge killings were challenging their convictions based on Perricone’s Internet postings.

Letten soon found himself standing before a judge, scrambling to uphold the Danziger convictions. He swore that neither he nor any other supervisor in the office knew what Perricone had been up to.

Letten’s deputy, Jan Mann, stood silently beside him.

In the months before Mencken1951 was unmasked, Perricone and Mann, who blogged under the handle “eweman,” had engaged in an online duet on NOLA.com, often chiming in on the same comment boards, sometimes minutes apart, defending the U.S. attorney’s office and attacking its critics.

This time, Gibbens noticed that both Mann and eweman favored the term “fender lizards” to describe a cop groupie. He filed another defamation suit. Mann confessed and resigned, as did her husband, James Mann, also a top supervisor in the office who was close to Perricone.

Letten, widely respected as an effective crusader against corruption, decided he had to step down as well.

A week after both Manns departed, Karla Dobinski, a senior attorney in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, confessed that she too had posted on NOLA.com during the Danziger Bridge trial, using the handle “Dipsos,” meaning someone given to drink.

Judge Kurt Engelhardt ordered a new trial for the police officers, saying the “bizarre and appalling turn of events” represented the first known instance where prosecutors used social media anonymously to circumvent ethical restrictions against public commentary on cases before the court.

The U.S. attorney also dropped the two-year landfill investigation involving Heebe. Soon defense lawyers for public officials and accused killers alike were filing motions and appeals to get their clients off.

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Today, Perricone lives in exile on the edge of New Orleans, barred from the federal courthouse downtown where he held sway for 21 years.

When a reporter knocked on his door one recent evening, he was at first belligerent, then reluctant and ultimately unable to resist telling his story, letting his dinner cool as mosquitoes slipped into the house.

As he stood on his porch and talked for nearly three hours, he suggested over and over that jealously and grudges accumulated over his two-decade career were behind his downfall.

“I’ve just been called every damn name in the book, and I’ve really taken a punch,” said Perricone, now 63.

“I never did anything to influence a jury,” he asserted.

“I want you to write something down,” he said. “In five years I made 2,600 comments on NOLA.com. Of those .0444% were work-related.”

The Justice Department is appealing Engelhardt’s ruling to grant the police officers a new trial, arguing there is no evidence that any of the jurors saw or were influenced by the blog posts, though several jurors said before the trial that they followed NOLA.com. It also asked the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to remove Engelhardt from the case, saying it was clear he could not be objective.

In May, two federal judges revealed that the Justice Department investigations found that Perricone and Jan Mann committed prosecutorial misconduct, but were not guilty of revealing grand jury information. The Louisiana State Bar Assn. may investigate the misconduct charges and could disbar them. The Justice Department said Tuesday that Dobinski still worked there.

With his law career shattered, Perricone hopes to reinvent himself once again, employing that extensive vocabulary as a fiction writer. He’s working on what he called a “roman a clef” with a title he appears to think reflects his own story: “Blue Steel Crucifix.”

tim.phelps@latimes.com

Twitter: @timphelpsLAT


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