Danziger Bridge in New Orleans.

 

A Louisiana attorney discipline board has recommended disbarment for a former longtime federal prosecutor who posted anonymous online comments on news articles about cases his office was pursuing, including a high-profile prosecution accusing New Orleans police officers of shooting unarmed city residents shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

In a recommendation made Tuesday to the Louisiana Supreme Court, the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board held that Salvador Perricone violated several professional conduct rules when he used various handles, such as “Legacyusa” and “Dramatis Personae,” to anonymously post comments on the website of New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune newspaper.

Before stepping down in 2012, Perricone was chief litigation counsel at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana, where he had served in various roles since 1991. Earlier in his career, Perricone had been a New Orleans police officer, a sheriff’s deputy and an agent with the FBI. He was admitted to the Louisiana state bar in 1979.

According to the board, Perricone has admitted that he posted anonymous comments online regarding cases his office was handling, and that he had breached several professional conduct rules, including a bar on “extrajudicial comments” that could influence a case. The online comments dated back as far as 2007, the board said.

“The board finds that there is clear evidence that respondent intended to heighten public condemnation of various individuals being investigated or prosecuted by the USA’s office in the Eastern District of Louisiana,” the board wrote in its ruling on Tuesday. “Respondent’s comments speculated on the guilt of various individuals subject to prosecution or investigation and, otherwise, cast these individuals in a very negative light.”

In email exchanges on Friday, Perricone didn’t directly comment in response to the board’s findings. He said he doesn’t trust the press after having “been ambushed in the past” and said the appeal of his disciplinary case was now in his attorney’s hands. He didn’t offer further comment.

Kirk Granier, a retired Louisiana state judge and the lawyer who represented Perricone in front of the attorney discipline board, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Perricone served as a prosecutor in one of the cases cited in the disciplinary board’s ruling—a public corruption case involving alleged bribes paid to influence the award of a state contract. He did not work directly on another high-profile case, a prosecution of police officers involved in a deadly 2005 shooting on New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge a few days after Hurricane Katrina. But his commenting on news articles about that case helped derail it and “tarnished the reputation” of the federal prosecutor’s office where he was stationed, the board said.

Among other comments, Perricone used the Dramatis Personae moniker to criticize the New Orleans Police Department, and in particular, one officer accused of shooting and killing an unarmed, disabled man on the Danziger Bridge, according to the attorney discipline board.

“You shot because you wanted to be part of something, you thought, was bigger than you. You let your ego control your emotions,” Perricone wrote in one online comment. “You wanted to be viewed as a big man among the other officers. That’s the creed of the NOPD and I hope the jury ignores your lame explanation and renders justice.”

After several former officers were initially found guilty in the Danziger case and sentenced to, in some cases, decades in jail, a federal judge in 2013 ordered a new trial in part because of evidence that Perricone and other Justice Department officials had commented on news stories about the case. The case continued after that and, in 2016, five former officers entered guilty pleas in the case but received much shorter sentences.

The attorney discipline board’s recommendation of disbarment is not the final word on Perricone’s potential sanction. Under Louisiana’s lawyer discipline process, that recommendation must be reviewed by the state’s high court before any sanction is imposed. One member of the board dissented, saying that a lesser penalty of suspension would be more appropriate in Perricone’s case.

The board’s recommended sanction was also harsher than that suggested by a disciplinary committee that initially considered Perricone’s case. The hearing committee in January recommended a two-year suspension for the former federal prosecutor. One year of the committee’s proposed suspension would have been deferred in light of the fact that Perricone has effectively been serving a voluntary suspension for more than five years after he resigned from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in March 2012.

The hearing committee also cited testimony from Perricone as to why he made the online comments. He told the committee that he thought the comments would help relieve stress, which in the post-Katrina era was high as the U.S. Attorney’s Office pursued a number of public corruption investigations. A psychologist also offered expert testimony that Perricone suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by his time as a police officer and FBI agent and his witnessing of gruesome deaths.

The hearing committee ultimately said it was “skeptical” of the PTSD diagnosis “and its causative role in respondent’s blogging.” But the committee also referenced other mitigating factors, including that Perricone had no history of misconduct and was cooperative during the disciplinary process. The hearing committee also said at the time of Perricone’s actions, there was no ethical rule or Justice Department guideline explicitly focused on anonymous comments.

The board, however, said on Tuesday that it did not believe that the absence of such a rule should lessen Perricone’s sanction. The board concluded further that, as a government official, Perricone could rightly be held to a higher standard, making his conduct more serious than if he had held a different position.

“As a senior federal prosecutor with significant experience, respondent should have known his actions had the potential to wreak havoc, which is exactly what happened,” the board wrote. “The fact that respondent’s online commentary continued for a significant period of time demonstrates the poorest of judgment.”