“Alienation – an individual’s estrangement from society.”
– The American Political Dictionary, Fifth Edition, 1973
n what may have been their last interview together, United States Attorney Jim Letten and Senior Trial Counsel Salvador “Sal” Perricone sat in the Feds’ new downtown high-rise office on Poydras Street.
It was Friday afternoon, Jan. 20, 2012.
Both veteran federal prosecutors relaxed as they read separate documents during an interview with New Orleans Magazine. Letten is the New Orleans area’s best-known crime-fighter. He famously prosecuted former Governor Edwin W. Edwards on fraud and racketeering charges in 2000. He also led the rebuilding of federal law enforcement in Southeast Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
Perricone was one of Letten’s most tenacious prosecutors, but declined public comment in this interview.
A former chief of the office’s organized crime strike force, Perricone coordinated prosecution of political corruption probes in Jefferson Parish and served as the office’s point man in the Department of Justice’s latest effort to reform the troubled New Orleans Police Department.
In October 2005, then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales – noting that Perricone previously “served with distinction” as both an FBI agent and NOPD officer – tapped the New Orleans prosecutor to head the “Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force,” a federal inter-agency effort set up to ensure that billions of dollars in federal relief funds reached storm victims.
On March 20, 2012, Perricone, 60, resigned while under investigation, after admitting to posting hundreds of anonymous (and often bombastic) comments on The Times-Picyaune’s nola.com under the pseudonym “Henry L. Mencken 1951.”
“Mencken’s” online comments rocked Letten’s office, the most stable pillar of the city’s much-maligned criminal justice system.
Some writing samples follow:
“This is New Orleans. Every body [sic] is DWI. I[t] makes it tolerable to live here,” he writes, voicing suspicion over the police DWI arrest of federal prosecutor Theodore Carter and his earlier, successful prosecution of NOPD cops convicted of shooting six civilians (two fatally) on Danziger Bridge.
As “Mencken,” Perricone also branded Barack Obama’s Cabinet as a “West Wing band of Bolsheviks.”
More disturbing were newsmedia reports alleging Perricone as “legacyusa,” the anonymous poster who in June 2009 darkly urged gun-owners to visit the Park Island home of then-Mayor Ray Nagin.
Letten immediately called for an internal probe by the U.S. Department of Justice to determine if Perricone’s postings violated any criminal laws (such as leaking secret grand jury material).
After accepting Perricone’s resignation, Letten moved into damage-control mode.
Letten declared that his estranged top aide’s postings were the “unauthorized,” “inappropriate” and “aberrant” acts of “a single individual” – with no adverse impact on any federal cases. He insisted Perricone acted alone; his blistering rants against federal judges, defense attorneys, the NOPD and media pundits – among many others – did not reflect the attitudes of 120 other employees at the U.S. Attorney’s Office or his now-estranged boss.
Letten confidently predicted that the DOJ probe of Perricone would vindicate the integrity of the prosecutor’s office.
The self-immolation of Perricone’s profession as prosecutor appeared already complete; his approximately 40-year career in law enforcement appeared burned beyond recognition.
Critically, the online flap would divert both Letten – and public attention – from the Republican prosecutor’s advocacy of stopping the city’s notorious violent crime by providing job skills and other opportunities to “disconnected young adults” and federal ex-offenders.
The roiling scandal also distracted activists from holding Mayor Landrieu, Police Chief Ronal Serpas, Letten and the Justice Department publicly accountable for progress on much-needed reforms of the NOPD.
On March 17, 2011, the Landrieu administration and top feds had held a solemn press conference at Gallier Hall. DOJ officials released a devastating report showing a pattern of police misconduct at NOPD: excessive force, unconstitutional “stops, searches and arrests,” a systemic failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence, discriminatory policing and the corruption of off-duty paid security details.
One year later, the conspicuous absence of federal and city progress reports on reforming NOPD is filled instead by public alarm over prolific crime, two police shootings and the cynical musings of Perricone/“Mencken”:
“We the people don’t trust the NOPD when they’re present and trust them less when they are absent,” Perricone wrote as “Mencken.”
On this January afternoon, at this reporter’s request, Letten and Perricone perused separate extraordinary addresses on the abuse of official power, delivered 10 years apart. One is a “victim impact statement” read aloud in federal court last year by Corey Groves whose mother was murdered on orders of a corrupt NOPD cop (see “Anatomy of a Crime,” March 2012 issue).
The other address is a top FBI agent’s 11-year-old speech railing against the scope of corruption in Louisiana.
Unlike Perricone’s online rants, the 2001 luncheon address by Charles Mathews II, then-Special Agent-in-Charge of FBI-New Orleans was approved in advance by the Justice Department.
Mathews blamed Louisiana voters for the state’s legacy of corrupt officials, following the feds’ racketeering and fraud conviction of former Governor Edwards in 2000.
“Public corruption in Louisiana is epidemic, endemic and entrenched,” Mathews told the nonprofit New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission, adding: “For 30 years, the state tolerated, if not abetted, a serial thief as governor. While I didn’t expect anyone in Louisiana to be surprised with Edwards’ guilt, the lack of [public] outrage at the scope of his criminality was instructive.”
Mathews said the governor set a low standard for state and local officials, including police, adding that Louisiana led all 56 FBI field offices in public corruption convictions in 2000 with 32.
After skimming a copy of the FBI agent’s speech, Letten said only this: “We still have the largest corruption program in the country. I’m the last guy to say we have turned the corner on corruption. We’re in the process of turning the corner on corruption – if we stay the course.”
Perricone thumbed through the old speech.
“Oh, yeah, I remember him,” Perricone said, warily. He did not elaborate.
During a wide-ranging interview, the senior trial counsel made good points.
Unfortunately, none are recorded – at Perricone’s request.
He insisted any public comments from the office come from Letten who, “Mencken” complains, hogs media attention from more deserving subordinates.
That night on nola.com, Perricone’s online alter ego spoke more freely than the real life-prosecutor who created him. “Mencken” chided a corruption defendant for threatening to withdraw his guilty plea: “Never play chicken with the Feds!!!!”
“Mencken” then denounced the state Supreme Court as a “haven for criminals,” after justices reinstated the law license of an attorney caught up in the old Jefferson Parish courthouse corruption probe.
Several weeks before Perricone’s resignation, New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatreveaux penned a guest column for The Times-Picayune: “The ultimate cost of corruption is the alienation of the citizenry and their deep mistrust of government.”
The alienation of Sal Perricone from both the public and the government he served remains difficult to comprehend, much less calculated.
At a minimum, a personal tragedy has diverted public attention from the critical work of building trust in the city’s historically troubled police department, finding job skills for disaffected youths and repatriated ex-offenders and otherwise increasing the peace in order to make New Orleans a safer city.