By: Stephanie Grace
The U.S. attorney commenting scandal in New Orleans gave us a poster child for appalling behavior.
Sal Perricone, the prosecutor whose pseudonymous online posts targeted judges, politicians, fellow lawyers and people under his office’s scrutiny, betrayed the trust of his colleagues and his boss, the previously popular U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. He undermined public belief in the Justice Department’s integrity.
According to a partially redacted copy of the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility’s report obtained by The Advocate, Perricone violated state and federal conduct rules when he used several aliases to opine on nola.com about active investigations and pending cases, and to spread false rumors about members of the bench.
And, the report said, he posted ugly, stereotypical comments that “can reasonably be interpreted as evidencing racial bias against African-Americans” and that “could have caused the public to suspect that he might have conducted his professional duties as an AUSA (assistant U.S. attorney) in a racially biased manner.” All this during a period when the office was mounting a concerted campaign against public corruption and snaring a number of major black political leaders in the process.
Mann was Letten’s first assistant and chief of the criminal division; as such, she not only outranked Perricone but was widely believed to have her boss’s full trust. When one of the office’s investigative targets, wealthy landfill owner Fred Heebe, unmasked Perricone, Letten put Mann in charge of the fallout. What nobody else seemed to know at the time was that Mann, too, was a regular commenter on nola.com, also under an assumed handle.
She didn’t post nearly as frequently as Perricone did, and her comments were less inflammatory. Still, the report found that she’d weighed in on active investigations and appeals, and disparaged not only defendants but a federal judge, Kurt Engelhardt. Commenting on a controversial Engelhardt decision in one of the Danziger Bridge civil rights cases, she wrote that “the judge declared a mistrial because his best buddy the defense attorney asked for it as a result of the butt whippin’ his client was taking on the stand.” For those offenses, the report found that she’d violated the same rules that Perricone did.
But that was only the beginning. When Mann accepted Letten’s assignment as point person for cleaning up the mess, she embarked on an effort to minimize the offense and deceive pretty much everyone else over her own behavior. While she didn’t actively claim not to have posted on nola.com (although she did once say she was not familiar with the commenting culture), the report found that she’d exhibited a “lack of honesty, probity, or integrity in principle” and a “lack of straightforwardness” in not disclosing her actions.
Because she didn’t, Mann participated in responding to former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard’s motion that the office recuse itself from his prosecution, even though she had personally posted three comments about the case. Instead, she successfully argued to Judge Hayden Head that any conflict had been eliminated with Perricone’s departure.
She then quoted Head’s finding to Engelhardt in a draft motion and even reinserted it after a colleague took it out.
“In the final version of this pleading, therefore, Mann cited, paraphrased and quoted from a portion of Judge Head’s July 26, 2012, order that she knew to be inaccurate,” the report said. “Indeed, she took affirmative steps to further spread the inaccurate view of the situation.”
Mann also led several colleagues, including Letten and Barbara Bernstein, the lead attorney on the Danziger cases, to think that she, too, disapproved of Perricone’s actions. Bernstein told investigators that, as a result of their conversations, she believed Mann “thought that (Perricone) was an absolute idiot for having done what he did.”
By failing to fess up to her own actions, the report concluded, Mann compounded the damage done to the office and “gambled with the Department’s credibility and the good will it enjoyed with the judiciary, defense counsel, and the public.” She failed to disclose her conflict of interest and to deal honestly with her client — the government itself.
And make no mistake, misleading the government is a big deal. In the federal system, filing a false tax return can get someone sent to prison. So can lying to authorities during an interview, even when the defendant is acquitted of the underlying charges; that’s what happened to former Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown — who, ironically, was prosecuted way back when by Perricone.
Mann, like Perricone, has lost her job and agreed not to practice in federal court. Whether there will be additional repercussions is unclear.
Still, longtime court-watchers know perfectly well that the system is often unforgiving, particularly toward those who violate the public trust and undermine confidence in government institutions. Seems like it would be fair to apply the same tough standard here.