NEW ORLEANS - Long before Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone was exposed this week as the prolific online blogger “Henry L. Mencken1951,” he was known as one of the more colorful and high-profile characters in an otherwise buttoned-down and by-the-book federal attorney’s office.
Perricone now sits in a form of prosecutor’s purgatory, forced by U.S. Attorney Jim Letten to recuse himself from any matters he commented on in the nola.com forums, but still employed while he awaits the outcome of an internal investigation by the Justice Department.
It won’t be the first time Perricone has been subject to an internal review. The former NOPD patrol officer-turned-lawyer was investigated – and cleared – in late 2010 after he drove away from the scene of an auto accident on St. Charles Avenue.
A police report of the Dec. 6 accident states that Perricone rear-ended a car that was stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of St. Charles and Louisiana Avenue. The driver of the other car “exited his vehicle and spoke to the driver of Vehicle #1 (Perricone), who appeared to be out of it or on medication,” the report states.
When the traffic light turned green, Perricone, without warning, “left and headed east on St. Charles Avenue.” According the report, damage to the cars was light and neither driver was injured.
Shortly after driving away from the accident scene, Perricone ended up in the parking garage of his workplace, the U.S. Attorney’s office on Camp Street. According to several accounts of the incident, Perricone called for assistance while sitting in his car in the parking garage. Several high-ranking members of the U.S. Attorney’s office attended to Perricone, and he was taken to a nearby hospital.
When a New Orleans traffic officer caught up to Perricone at Ochsner Medical Center, Perricone stated, “he blacked out, the struck Vehicle #4, then he became alert and drove to work.
Perricone was not cited in the accident, which caused only minor damage to the cars and no injuries.
“The officer did not issue a citation due to the driver of Vehicle #1’s medical illness,” the accident report states.
Later, Perricone was cleared by his office. Several months after the accident, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said the matter was resolved without any disciplinary action. Letten said the accident was reviewed according to Justice Department protocol.
Letten was unavailable for comment Friday, one day after revealing that his longtime prosecutor was the person who posted hundreds of blogs.
The web comments by “Mencken1951” covered a wide range of topics, but included scathing criticism of politicians, judges and even some subjects of federal prosecution. One of those subject, River Birch landfill co-owner Fred Heebe, helped unmask Perricone by filing a civil court motion seeking the prosecutors’ deposition as the likely author.
Perricone raised eyebrows during the week when – amid speculation that he was the blogger – he appeared in court to defend the government’s prosecution of River Birch CFO Dominick Fazzio.
Fazzio faced federal charges in an unrelated theft case, but prosecutors acknowledged that they tried to use Fazzio’s exposure in that case to gain his cooperation in the River Birch investigation.
Letten on Thursday defended his decision to let Perricone participate in the Fazzio hearing, even though Perricone was revealed as the author of critical comments about Heebe.
Perricone has felt the glare of the spotlight in the past.
In 2002, as the lead prosecutor in the so-called “Canal Street Brothel” case, Perricone defended a bust of a high-end New Orleans brothel that was linked to a national network of madams and brothels from coast-to-coast.
"This case represents, I feel, one of the vilest forms of racketeering there is, and that's the exploitation of women for the sake of a buck," Perricone said in oft-quoted statement he made at the press conference announcing the case.
But the case quickly was subjected to withering criticism as a questionable use of federal resources. When defense attorneys filed court motions that could have revealed many of the prominent and well-heeled clients of the brothel, Perricone was removed as the public face of the prosecution. Ultimately, lenient plea deals were struck for nearly all of the defendants and the master list of clients remained secret.
Perricone was a former Jefferson Parish deputy. Later he joined the New Orleans police department, attending Loyola Law school in the 1970s along with several other officers.
After he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor, Perricone stirred things up with his former NOPD colleagues in 1996 when he was part of the team that indicted then-Deputy Chief Antoine Saacks and Major Raymond Burkart on bankruptcy fraud charges.
Saacks was convicted and served two years in prison. Burkart struck a plea deal, negotiated his charge down to one count of civil contempt, agreeing to an 18-month suspension from practicing in bankruptcy court.
That bad blood from that case flared up five years later when Perricone crossed paths with Burkart in NOPD headquarters. In a confrontation that remains a colorful slice of local police lore, tense words were exchanged and Perricone had Burkart handcuffed and shackled by FBI agents. Burkart was briefly held without bond, but he was eventually cleared of any criminal charges.
Burkhart later was suspended from the police department for 10 days for the confrontation.
Perricone, who is now on voluntary paid leave from the U.S. Attorney's office, could not be reached for comment Friday.