NEW ORLEANS - A top federal prosecutor has admitted he is a vocal commenter on a local news website, sometimes sounding off on his own investigations.
Veteran assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone admitted Tuesday to being the sole user of the alias "Henry L. Mencken 1951," posting hundreds of comments on the local news website Nola.com, said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten in a news conference Thursday.
Perricone's comments included cases he was working on, such as the River Birch Landfill probe, as well as criticism of Letten and federal judges.
"This is not a happy thing for me," said Letten. "This is something I feel we have to make right by doing it by the strictest protocol and the most honest transparent way we can."
Letten said his office has alerted the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. The Office of Professional Responsibility will investigate. Letten said no one in his office knew Perricone was commenting under the alias until Tuesday.
"You don't see these things much because missteps, inappropriate statements by federal prosecutors, are really rare," said Letten.
Perricone has been recused from all matters on which he commented, said Letten. Even so, Perricone was part of a hearing on River Birch this morning.
"We believed and I take responsibility for this that it was appropriate for the sake of judicial economy," said Letten, pointing to the preparation needed for the hearing.
"The word in the legal community, those of us that deal in that building weekly, is that this is a nuclear event," said Eyewitness News Legal Analyst Chick Foret. "I think when the research is done and the investigative journalists get involved and they start going through these commentaries, it's going to get even worse than it is now."
Foret suspects Perricone used other aliases in the past, including campstblue and legacyusa, possibly using one to criticize Foret.
"At the time when he talked about me I suspected it was Mr. Perricone at the time, just the way he talked and the knowledge of the subject matter he had at the time," said Foret. "I'm convinced now that legacyusa is and was in fact Sal Perricone."
Foret doesn't believe Perricone's comments will stop any cases from going forward. But he said it's possible Letten's entire office could be recused from cases in question, and the Department of Justice's main office could take over instead. The decision over how this issue is ultimately handled will be made by the Department of Justice.
"I have the greatest respect for Jim Letten and [assistant U.S. Attorney] Jan Mann," said Foret. "The question becomes, has one rogue prosecutor tainted the good work that has been done for decades by these two senior litigators? Has Mr. Perricone tarnished the reputation of the U.S. Attorney's Office? I hope not."
Fred Heebe was the first to tie Perricone to the alias. The co-owner of River Birch Landfill, Heebe filed a lawsuit this week claiming Mencken1951's comments defamed him.
Heebe has been considered the target of a federal probe, but has never been charged with a crime.