In terms of volume, disgraced Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone has rivaled his assumed namesake, noted newspaper columnist and essayist H. L. Mencken, but that’s as far as it goes. Suffice it to say that the prosecutor who masqueraded as the acerbic — and prolific — “Henry L. Mencken1951” in the reader comment sections of nola.com is no H. L. Mencken.
For starters, the real Mencken had the guts, and the integrity, to use his own name. Mencken also was a great wordsmith; Perricone is, by comparison, a quasi-literate poseur. His rants betrayed not so much a keen mind as a disturbed one.
By his own admission, Perricone posted some 600 comments under the “Mencken” nom de plume. Many suspect he had several other online alter egos, all of whom, like “Mencken,” had a penchant for pretentious but archaic words (“dubiety” was a favorite), alliteration and, above all, hubris. The other fake names ascribed to Perricone include “campstblue,” “legacyusa” and “dramatis personae.”
If those suspicions are correct, one has to wonder when Perricone did any work. Those respondents posted well over a thousand comments in recent years. In fairness, Perricone put a lot of crooks where they belong.
Why the anonymity, then?
Several reasons. Perricone broke some major rules by publicly discussing current cases. Like many anonymous online commenters, he no doubt felt he couldn’t be traced. Many cowards — and bullies — find that anonymity offers them a certain redoubt (to borrow another of Perricone’s favorite bon mots), if not a misplaced sense of bravado.
From behind his online mask, Perricone assailed a wide range of targets: President Barack Obama; U.S. Attorney Jim Letten; fellow prosecutors; various defense attorneys; several federal judges; high-profile federal targets; and even some journalists — including me. For the record, I take no umbrage. His few volleys at me were tame in comparison to many of the barbs I’ve received over the years.
Besides, it’s one thing to dismiss my musings as “effluvia.” It’s something else altogether for a federal prosecutor to launch venomous online broadsides at targets of federal investigations.
Attorneys have a legal duty to refrain from making “extrajudicial comments” about ongoing cases. Prosecutors have an added duty not to make comments “that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused.” Perricone did both with alacrity.
And arrogance, which doubtless led to him being outed as “Mencken” by Jefferson Parish landfill co-owner (and suspected federal target) Fred Heebe Jr. in a defamation pleading filed last week. A saddened Letten announced days later that the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility will now investigate the matter. The Louisiana State Bar Association should do likewise.
Meanwhile, Perricone has voluntarily taken indefinite annual leave and stepped down from his supervisory position. Consider that a prelude of what’s in store for him, none of which is pretty. In addition to losing his job, he could also lose his license to practice law.
Letten had earlier assured reporters that Perricone acted alone, but I’d feel better if DOJ investigators confirmed that — after talking to Perricone’s current and former colleagues.
In his news conference, Letten described Perricone as a “fine veteran attorney.” I must respectfully disagree. Fine attorneys respect the judiciary, their bosses, their peers and above all the rules. Fine attorneys in the Department of Justice harbor no biases; they don’t embarrass their office, taint its credibility, or jeopardize ongoing investigations.
Now that Perricone has been exposed a picayune bully who broke the rules, many who have been on the receiving end of his prosecutorial bluster will delight in the sudden dubiety of his redoubt.
The real H. L. Mencken would have noted at least that much — but with a great deal more flair, I’m sure.