In the bizarre case of disbarred New Orleans attorney James “Jamie” G. Perdigao, even the sentencing judge expresses incredulity.

A former senior law partner and top ethics adviser at the powerful New Orleans firm of Adams & Reese, Perdigao admittedly embezzled $20.6 million over a 13-year period from Adams & Reese and its casino clients. The feds argued in a memorandum to U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon that Perdigao purloined at least $29.6 million and perhaps $50 million – including tax evasion.

However, the mystery in the Perdigao case isn’t so much the money, but the man.

At his March 25 sentencing, Judge Fallon appeared astonished to find the former attorney standing before him in an orange prison jumpsuit. “Every Wednesday, I see defendants with no education, no job, no family… ” Fallon said. “You don’t fall into that category.”

As a senior partner at Adams & Reese, Perdigao commanded a six-figure salary commensurate with his specialty as a gaming litigation expert. He earned honors at Tulane University’s law school and graduated near the top of his class at Isidore Newman School, where he was an outstanding athlete.

According to pre-sentencing letters to the judge from the defendant’s friends and family, Perdigao was the handsome, successful, hardworking son of a prominent New Orleans psychiatrist. He was the kind of man parents trusted with their daughters. He didn’t indulge in flashy cars, fast women or vices.

Congressman Bob Livingston, who’s related to Perdigao by marriage, wrote to the judge of a “quiet, extremely bright and capable” youth who once stayed with him and his wife, Bonnie, for several months.

Unlike most professionals in the Uptown elite, Perdigao took courses in plumbing. He learned auto repair and basic carpentry.

One year after his Sept. 3, 2004 dismissal from Adams & Reese and his arrest one month later by the FBI, Perdigao’s used his skills as handyman to help family and friends to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina.

During Mardi Gras 2008, Perdigao declined party invitations. He chose instead to tend to the ailing 93-year-old black woman who helped to raise him and his siblings. He called her, “our adopted grandmother.”

 “The Jamie that I know is loving and thoughtful,” Perdigao’s stepsister wrote. “He is smart, hardworking and one of the funniest people I know.”
Perdigao also had a dark side.

Between good deeds for family and friends, Perdigao spent his last four years of freedom illegally hacking into Adams & Reese computers. From 2004 to ’06, he regaled federal prosecutors and FBI agents with fantastic, detailed allegations of public corruption at the highest levels of state and local government. However, Perdigao and the prosecutors eventually grew apart.

A former attorney for Bobby Guidry, the star witness against now-imprisoned former Gov. Edwin Edwards, Perdigao filed detailed allegations in federal court accusing two prosecutors of corruption. He also filed a civil racketeering suit against Adams & Reese lawyers, alleging corrupt and unethical practices, from federal witness tampering to ticket fixing. Outraged Adams & Reese lawyers called Perdigao’s filings the “fantasy” of a desperate man. Adams & Reese also accused Perdigao of breaking his vows of lawyer-client confidentiality to 27 of the firm’s clients. Several clients sued Adams & Reese. All but one suit was dropped by the time Perdigao was sentenced.

“Perdigao adopted a nuclear strategy, seeking to destroy those responsible for bringing him to justice,” Charles P. Adams Jr., managing partner of Adams & Reese wrote in a letter to Judge Fallon. Adams requested that Perdigao received the “maximum sentence” – 300 years.

Two days before sentencing, Perdigao recanted his allegations against prosecutors in the office of local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. Perdigao didn’t extend the same courtesy to his former employers at Adams & Reese.

Perdigao’s acceptance of guilt doesn’t end the mystery. His acceptance of responsibility for stealing $20 million (but not $30 million as the government alleged) was worth a two-point-reduction in the federal sentencing formula, records show.

Why Perdigao wasn’t jailed sooner may be part of his mystery. Freed on bond after his initial arrest in 2004, he was arrested last year for shoplifting in St. Bernard Parish. He was then re-arrested Oct. 15, ’08 by the FBI and booked with hacking into Adams & Reese computers at least 400 times and stealing firm files related to his criminal and civil cases.

The arrests jeopardized the $1 million bond posted by his divorced and elderly parents.

Early, in what Letten calls Perdigao’s “perverse game,” Perdigao made a strange move that authorities initially dismissed as a thief’s ruse.

On Oct. 1, 2004 – two weeks before his arrest by the FBI – Perdigao petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court to place him on disability inactive status. He attached a 13-page psychiatric report, which was sealed from public view.

The court’s chief disciplinarian said that Perdigao’s medical evaluation concluded that he was a “danger to clients and the public.”

The disciplinarian dryly noted there was no mention of criminal conduct. Perdigao was suspended from the bar Oct. 1. He was freed after two weeks in jail then helped the feds retrieve his ill-gotten gains from Swiss banks. Perdigao then began working with the feds for two years and became the “danger” he warned us of.

On March 25, 2009, Perdigao was one of three inmates seated and shackled in the near empty jury box of a packed federal courtroom. It is a special purgatory offering unique perspective, irony and unimpeded sightlines. Perdigao was seated closest to the judge.

Friends and family members – elegantly attired – wept quietly in the audience. Prosecutors, led by  Letten, sat on a front row seat watching the defendant, intently.

But if Perdigao looked at either his supporters or detractors, it was a stolen glance.

He personified a line from a Carl Sandburg poem – “hard as a man in handcuffs.” Even seated, he looked athletic. His hair was full, dark and wavy, but he was pale from five months in jail. His face was worn.

He waited for the judge to finish sentencing a fellow inmate. “We don’t need people in jail,” Fallon told the middle-aged prisoner. “We need people that help!”

Perdigao’s turn came and he stepped up to the dais. “I just would like to reiterate that I apologize for my conduct,” he said, quietly. His defense attorney William Wessel placed a consoling right arm around Perdigao’s waist, just above the “belly chain” for his handcuffs.

The judge angrily reminded Perdigao he failed his lawyerly duty as an officer of the court. “You let yourself down, you let your family down, you let your profession down and you let your country down,” Fallon said.

He sentenced Perdigao to 15 years in federal prison for mail fraud, bank fraud, interstate transportation of stolen funds, money laundering, income tax evasion, filing false income tax returns, obstruction of justice, unlawful computer intrusion and unlawful access to stored communications.

Perdigao also is ordered to pay $23.5 million in restitution, roughly half to Adams & Reese. He can have only supervised access to computers and for the next 15 years – no Internet.

It was Perdigao’s first offense. Sentencing day ended. “All rise!” the court bailiff said.

Court security shows the three inmates in an open doorway, opposite the jury box. They padded across the courtroom in single file.

Perdigao stared straight ahead as he passed his sobbing family and loved ones. He didn’t look back.