NEXT CHAPTER Former prosecutor, aka “Henry L. Mencken1951,” speaks out
GREG MILES PHOTOGRAPH
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Salvador “Sal” Perricone spent 21 years prosecuting corrupt government officials, cops and mobsters for the United States Attorney’s Office in New Orleans, then abruptly retired in March 2012 due to a self-inflicted Internet controversy.
So, when Perricone recalls how the feds won the last major criminal court against the Mafia in Louisiana in the mid-1990s, the recollection sounds like a former prosecutor’s idea of happier, simpler times.
Perricone, now 61, remembers how he and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, then-federal organized crime strike force chief, interviewed notorious Mafia “hit man” Samuel “Sammy the Bull” Gravano in a witness security program, as part of the federal case.
“Jim and I interviewed Sammy the Bull in 1995,” Perricone says. “[Gravano] was in a WitSec program (the U.S. Marshal’s Witness Security Program) in Arizona.”
The debriefing ultimately helped the feds thwart a three-mob family plot to infiltrate the fledgling video poker industry in Louisiana. Gravano admitted to a role in 19 murders in exchange for a five-year sentence – and cooperating with federal prosecutors, like Letten and Perricone.
As the estranged underboss to New York City crime boss John Gotti, Gravano was in a position to testify about 1990 discussions between crime families in New York City and New Orleans about video poker machine distribution in Louisiana – one year before the state legalized the game.
Gravano warned the government that the pending Louisiana trial of a Gambino family “capo” would trigger mob efforts to bribe or threaten jury members. Letten, Perricone and then-U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. used the convicted killer’s tip to successfully argue for a rare anonymous jury.
(U.S. v. Sebastian Salvatore et al, No. 96-30221, U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, April 14, 1997)
Several mob defendants in Louisiana pleaded guilty once they learned Gravano was cooperating, Perricone says.
Letten went on to become U.S. Attorney for the 13-parish federal Eastern District of Louisiana.
Perricone became chief of the office’s organized crime strike force. He worked on prosecution teams that won public corruption convictions of sheriff’s deputies, New Orleans Police Department officers, state judges, legislators and state insurance commissioner Jim Brown – the third consecutive elected official in that office who was found guilty on criminal charges. In 2002, he helped prosecute two NOPD supervisors convicted of shaking down promoters of the annual Essence Festival.
After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Perricone was tapped to help set up an anti-fraud task force overseeing billions of dollars in federal aid to South Louisiana.
A former NOPD detective, he participated in the U.S. Department of Justice’s negotiations with the city administration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu over a court plan to reform the NOPD.
For the last 12 years, Perricone served as senior litigation counsel, advising other prosecutors preparing for trial.
In March 2012, his storied career suddenly crashed like a computer.
Band of Bolsheviks
Sal Perricone admitted to posting hundreds of anonymous – and often offensive – comments on nola.com. The flap triggered calls for investigations and abruptly ended his career and tarnished the all-American image of the federal prosecutor’s office in New Orleans.
As “Henry L. Mencken1951,” Perricone excoriated national and local public figures, ranging from President Obama and his “West Wing band of Bolsheviks” to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whom he begged to “PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE STOP THE VAPID INANE NEWS CONFERENCES!!!!!”
“Mencken” also berated media pundits, black leaders, Uptown elites, Carnival organizations and, last December, acidly suggested it was time to “KILL MARDI GRAS.”
As a federal prosecutor, ironically, Perricone dutifully teamed up with the mayor’s younger brother – Assistant U.S. Attorney Maurice Landrieu – to prosecute a New Orleans man on weapons and drug charges, and for making threats against President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, in a telephone call to a 911 dispatcher.
Letten repudiated Perricone’s remarks in a statement saying his former top aide resigned March 19, but that his departure would not end an internal probe by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility – which Letten had requested just days earlier.
For three months, Perricone remained silent through withering news headlines, decrying reams of his ill-advised and formerly anonymous remarks.
“Sal has no one to blame but Sal,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission, which presented Perricone with five awards for public corruption investigations, beginning with the mob-related video poker probe in 1995.
This Was My Secret
In an exclusive interview, Perricone told New Orleans Magazine that he owes “the American taxpayers” both an explanation and an apology. (See text of statement on pg. 91). “I view the American taxpayers as my bosses,” Perricone says. “It sounds Boy Scout-ish, but I believe it.”
Speaking publicly for the first time since Letten announced his resignation March 19, Perricone said he alone was responsible for the Internet scandal.
“This was my secret,” he said.
Dressed in a dark suit and a red tie with a fleur-de-lis pattern, Perricone said his “motive” for the interview was to “clear Jim Letten” and the 120 other “dedicated, hard-working” employees of the U.S. Attorney’s Office of any responsibility for his Internet acts, apologize to those he offended and to refute some media criticisms.
“I wasn’t a rogue prosecutor,” says Perricone, whose federal enforcement career included six years as an FBI agent. “I gave 26 and a half commendable years to my country.”
He says he broke no law and didn’t violate federal rules governing grand jury secrecy.
Contradicting widespread rumors to the contrary, Perricone insisted that no one in the U.S. Attorney’s Office knew that he anonymously posted comments on nola.com as “Henry L. Mencken1951” – until he told Letten himself on March 13.
“Jim Letten had no idea of what I was doing,” Perricone said. “(First Assistant U.S. Attorney) Jan Mann had no idea what I was doing. This is on me. I take 100 percent of the responsibility.”
Perricone says nearly all of his online comments were posted on nights, holidays and weekends at home – not at work or at taxpayers’ expenses.
He said he was unaware of any other employee of the U.S. Attorney’s office who posted comments online.
Perricone says the importance of his role in the U.S. Attorney’s Office has been overstated.
“I was not the ‘No. 3 man’ in the office,” he said. He added he was not the U.S. Attorney’s “point man” during negotiations with the city on reforming the NOPD.
He also added that he wasn’t “lead attorney” in the ongoing Jefferson Parish public corruption probe, a distinction he last held in the government’s successful prosecution against political operative Mose Jefferson in a 2009 corruption case.
“Yes – It’s Me”
Perricone said he first told Letten about his postings on March 13, after Times-Picayune reporter Gordon Russell called him for comment about a state defamation suit that businessman Frederick K. Heebe filed against “Henry L. Mencken1951”
The suit suggested Perricone was “Mencken.”
Perricone says he declined the reporter’s request for comment.
The former prosecutor says he then went to see Letten, who had just gotten off the phone with the same Times-Picayune reporter.
Letten was reading the suit when Perricone walked into his office.
“Jim said ‘Is this you?’ Perricone recalled. “I told him, ‘Yes – it’s me.’ His face dropped and he blanched.”
In the suit, Heebe, owner of River Birch landfill, said “Mencken” posted 598 postings on nola.com during a six-month period. Many were about Heebe, his family, his company and an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Heebe hired James R. Fitzgerald, a forensic linguistic expert and former FBI profiler, who compared a recent government pleading (co-authored by Perricone) in a criminal case against River Birch’s CFO with 550 “Mencken” posts. The linguist concluded that the nine-page government pleading and “Mencken’s” online comments were very likely authored by the same person, based on a common use of archaic words such as “dubiety” and “redoubt.”
Fitzgerald reported finding only one source that used the same four words – “altar of,” “coil,” “dubiety” and “redoubt” – that “Mencken” used on nola.com – Robert Browning’s 1869 work, Dominus Hyacinthis de Archangelis, Pauperum Procurator.
Heebe’s suit noted that “Mencken’s” handle ended with “1951,” which is also the year Perricone was born.
Perricone says he regrets any adverse impact the “Mencken” controversy has had on Letten and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“I let down a friend and that hurts,” Perricone says of Letten. “I let down the office.”
“I Want to Be Investigated”
During the interview, Perricone attorney John Litchfield told New Orleans Magazine he didn’t want his client to answer questions about any pending court motions in which Perricone is named. “I don’t want him talking about particular comments,” Litchfield said.
As “Mencken,” prosecutor Perricone didn’t spare judges or opposing counsel. Reading some of “Mencken’s” missives alongside the American Bar Association’s rules regarding lawyer comments about the integrity of judges, it may be easier for a layperson to understand why Jim Letten “blanched” when Perricone confessed he was “Mencken.”
There is the well-publicized assertion that one federal judge “loves killer.”
Two milder Mencken samples follow: “We all know that Federal judges are NOT selected for their erudition but for their relationship with politicians,” Perricone wrote late last year as “Henry L. Mencken1951.” Another “Mencken” post referred to “the crap like we get on the Federal bench.”
Perricone said he believes he had a First Amendment right to comment anonymously, but added: “Just because something is legal, doesn’t mean you should do it.”
Meanwhile, attorney Litchfield also said he doesn’t want Perricone to discuss any U.S. Department of Justice investigation or state bar investigation of his postings.
Litchfield said Perricone would cooperate with any investigation, evoking a passionate response from his client, the newly retired prosecutor.
“I want to be investigated because I want to get this cleared,” Perricone said.
He also insisted he wasn’t the source of widely suspected “leaks” to the news media about criminal cases at the federal courthouse.
He said he didn’t violate strict federal rules governing grand jury secrecy. “I did not betray Rule 6-E,” he said.
Pointing to his attorney, Perricone added: “I can’t tell him what went on (in a grand jury session).”
He says he doesn’t know who was “leaking” information about cases in federal court.
“I have my suspicions,” Perricone says.
Who does he suspect?
“He has suspicions,” Litchfield interrupted his client.
“If that person knows, he should come forward,” Perricone said.
Blowing Off Steam
Perricone said he began posting comments on the Internet several years ago to “blow off steam.”
“Visiting nola.com’s comment section was like going to the day room in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” he says.
“‘Mencken’ was an intellectual outlet,” he said. “I had the safe redoubt of my anonymity. I glance at those comments now and I can’t believe I did this.”
Perricone confirmed for the first time that he used two other online handles: “legacyusa,” which debuted in August 2009 and last commented in July 2011; then “dramatis personae” (Latin for “characters of the drama”), which appeared for a few weeks until “Mencken’s” run, from August 2011 until March 2012. The range of dates were reported by The Times-Picayune, an affiliate of nola.com.
Perricone says he created the personas because he kept forgetting his passwords.
Media critics and bloggers have suspected Perricone also an used an older pseudonym – “campstblue” – linked to 718 comments posted on nola.com, from November 2007 to September 2009.
“I don’t remember using ‘camp street blue,’” Perricone said.
In 2009, “campstblue” posted a disturbing message about then-Mayor Ray Nagin: “For all of you who have a penchant for firearms and how they work, Ray Nagin lives on Park Island.”
Perricone later said he’ll “own up” to any posts he authored, adding: “If I’m being wrongly accused, it needs to stop.” Since Perricone was linked to “Mencken,” several anonymous commenters have emerged, using slightly similar handles to the personas the retired prosecutor says he created.
He says he hopes nola.com will follow other websites and require commenters to declare their true identities.
He also says he no longer blogs or comments online.
“I’m not going to pursue a dumb idea,” Perricone says, deadpanning: “I’m not a recidivist.”
Over the last 20 years, Louisiana has ranked at or near the top of FBI surveys for federal public corruption cases.
Perricone says the constant flow of corruption allegations that came into the U.S. Attorney’s Office took a toll.
“Nothing can approach the stress one can be under when you begin a long corruption trial,” he says. “Everything must be perfect. Your jury selection, your opening statement, the order you call your witnesses, anticipating your opponents’ attack on your witnesses – each and every minute in trial is consumed with every nerve being on watch for some mistake. The pressure never really abates – there’s always a new case waiting for you.”
He said he became “jaded” and “cynical, sullen and irritable;” he added: “I felt helpless in trying to help New Orleans. I was burned out.”
Perricone said his wife, Mary, urged him to get help, 12 years ago.
“I was too proud,” he says.
Instead of “balancing” the pressures of prosecutions with healthy pursuits such as exercise, hobbies (Letten plays music), church and family, Perricone said he logged onto the computer as “Mencken.”
He also took Ambien, a powerful sleep medication.
On the morning of Dec. 6, 2010, he says, he awoke and inadvertently took another dosage of Ambien – thinking it was Lipitor, his cholesterol medication. “I wolfed that down with a black cup of coffee and a muffin,” he recalled. He left for work, driving down River Road. “That’s the last thing I remember.” He was involved in an accident without injury on St. Charles Avenue at Louisiana Avenue – then left the scene, according to reviews of the accident by WWL-TV (March 16, 2012) and FOX8/TV (March 21, 2012).
Perricone said after driving on River Road, he recalls sitting inside his car, windows up, in the garage of the Hale Boggs federal building. Outside, fellow prosecutor Jim Mann was repeatedly yelling at him “Stick out your tongue!” – a purported technique to ascertain whether someone is suffering from a stroke.
Perricone was transported by ambulance to Ochsner hospital. He wasn’t charged. Perricone says Letten visited him at the hospital, but both prosecutors insisted he received no special consideration.
WWL-TV said Perricone wasn’t cited for the traffic accident because of an unspecified “medical illness.” FOX8 reported the victim in the accident was never asked by NOPD whether he wanted to press charges.
Perricone showed New Orleans Magazine a photo of one dose each of Lipitor and Ambien, which look very much alike.
Perricone said he no longer takes the sleep medication. “I read myself to sleep now.”
Perricone also said he has consulted a stress management expert. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I feel like a new person.”
He says he hopes people who feel stressed in their jobs will be encouraged by his story – to seek help. “It is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.”
He said he’s trying to live a more “balanced life,” spending more time with Mary, his “one and only wife” of 30 years, his Catholic faith and books by Catholic authors. For the over-stressed, he recommended The Rhythm of Life by self-help author Matthew Kelly. For beach reading, it’s Mob Lawyer by Frank Rogano, an attorney he once questioned, along with two FBI agents, during the run-up to the last Mafia case in Louisiana.
Investigations and the threat of lawsuits still loom, of course.
Perricone and his attorney are planning what Perricone calls an “apology tour” – involving meeting privately with some of the many individuals offended by “Mencken.”
After the fallout is resolved, he said, “I want to practice law, civil defense.”
Perricone also said he’s finishing a book – fiction.
“Some of the characters may be strangely familiar.”