Justitia – maybe not so blind. (credit: Tony Caffrey)

Federal prosecutor Sal Perricone submitted his resignation to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten on Tuesday. It’s a shame because Perricone is one of the smartest guys in the region. Or at least that’s how he portrayed himself in the comment boards on nola.com. There, Perricone posed as the cyclops in the land of the blind. Everyone who disagreed with him was either sightless or stupid.

Apparently writing under several noms de plume, Perricone used the nola.com forums to rage against stupid lawyers, corrupt politicians and a dim media. Perricone always had all the “answers.” He was never flummoxed. Everyone else was either a loudmouth doofus or an apologist for corrupt liars (or both). For Perricone, ignorance wasn’t a starting point on the road to wisdom; it was merely the one-size-fits-all label for his opponents. Thus, the online Perricone was the anti-Socrates. Never in need of insight, Perricone mixed twenty-dollar words with cutting remarks to opine on the cases his office handled, and make his online opponents feel small.

The Times-Picayune reported the story first on March 13:

Landfill magnate Fred Heebe filed a civil defamation suit… against a frequent commenter on NOLA.com, alleging that the commenter — who uses the handle “Henry L. Mencken1951” — is actually [assistant U.S. attorney Sal Perricone].

[Henry L. Mencken1951’s] comments were compared to legal filings made by federal prosecutors in their sweeping probe of the River Birch landfill, which is co-owned by Heebe and his father-in-law. [An FBI profiler enlisted by Heebe] found striking similarities in the language, the suit says.

Some within the vigorous online communities at American Zombie and Slabbed blogs smell a rat. They suspect someone in the U.S. Attorney’s office tipped Heebe to Perricone’s online identity, so Heebe could discredit the feds who are investigating him. While I’m confident that Heebe has inside connections, I’m much more inclined to agree with James Gill who, after reviewing Perricone’s online rants under usernames that included birth years and references to his employment, concludedthat the media should’ve uncloaked Perricone long before Heebe did. Clues were abundant. Not to mention Perricone’s repeated use of words like “dubiety,” which immediately set him apart from most nola.com commenters. And as someone who has nailed plagiarists without any fancy linguistic tools beyond google, I’m sure Heebe’s camp was smart enough to connect the dots on their own.

Who knows, maybe Heebe and Perricone even traded pseudonymous barbs in the forum.

Perricone’s identity is more obvious in hindsight. But it’s worth pointing out that some nola.com commenters were suspicious of Perricone’s alleged aliases (in this case “legacyusa”) well before the story broke.

Take this 2011 exchange among comments inspired by the T-P’s obituary of former U.S. Attorney John Volz. As the T-P noted, Volz “prosecuted such figures as crime boss Carlos Marcello, former Gov. Edwin Edwards, (and) former New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick” in the 1980’s. Here’s an exchange between “legacyusa” and “brlawyer”, quoted in its entirety, for both context and flavor. See if you detect a subtle interplay between the arguing interlocutors. To me, it seems almost like a masked dance (among peers?) trying to feel out who the other one is, each tweaking the other in hopes of getting the other to betray more identifying information.

Commenter brlawyer gets things started with a dig at the deceased:

A man defined by his failures.

Legacyusa responds:

I guess the BR stands for Baton Rouge, which says enough about you and what defines you. Volz set the standard for prosecuting public corruption. The record is secondary. That standard still applies today to the men and women of that US Attorney’s Office. Perhaps Baton Rouge could take some lessons from those guys and gals downtown. BRlawyer, I hope you respond to this. Please.

Brlawyer complies (my emphasis):

Re-trying a sitting governor, after only a single juror voted to convict (and that one juror was, shall we say, a bit odd), and spending a huge amount of the public’s money in pursuit of a personal vendetta despite reason and logic — does not demonstrate the kind of “professionalism and ethics” any prosecutor should stand for. Perhaps you missed the DOJ book celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of the department — each state (or maybe it was each district … I can’t recall) had a section, and Mr. Volz was quoted as saying, regarding the acquittal of Governor Edwards, “Well, if we didn’t make him guilty, at least we made him sorry.” I seriously doubt that the Department of Justice mis-quoted their own man. If you can defend that kind of sentiment, then I only hope you are a former member of that office and no longer invested with the awesome powers we provide to prosecutors. I wish his family well, but we should not forget the past. Oh, and LegacyUSA, I’ll wait to hear your insightful comments about Mr. Volz’ statement — if that’s the standard for prosecuting corruption, then God help us all.

Legacyusa sinks his teeth in, but also ignores the bait brlawyer extended (marked in bold):

You have obviously been suduced (sic) by the Edwards mistique (sic), so edifying you would be a waste of effort. But I seen (sic) nothing intrisically (sic) wrong with what Volz was saying. Those of us with an IQ above the speed limit, excluding you BR, knew the (sic) your friend and idol Edwin Edwards was an inveterate crook and will be until he has no pulse. He was a crook in 1985 and his life style(sic) sent he and his son to prison in 2000. So where’s the mistatement (sic)? Where’s the mischaracterization? It resides in your feeble mind.

Determining online identities isn’t brain surgery. For example, in that same thread a commenter named irishjean wrote, “You obviously didn’t know [Volz].” Which is another way of irishjean saying, “I knew Volz.” After a quick review of irishjean’s comments, I’d bet irishjean knew or even worked with Perricone and Letten. Irishjean certainly sounds like Perricone, with the same cheerleading for Letten, focus on legal stories, and right-wing politics. This stuck out like a sore thumb and I wasn’t even looking for it. It’s a random example, but it shows that most commenters don’t strain to cover their identities on messageboards. It doesn’t require much sleuthing to narrow down the list of their possible identities.

So I don’t think the “who exposed Perricone’s online identity (to Heebe)” is a key question, as my friends at American Zombie and Slabbed do. But I could be wrong! I’m not a know-it-all on a mountaintop, shouting to my peers on other peaks, and insulting the unwashed hordes below. Doubt and recognition of my own ignorance are two of my closest friends. I do agree with my Slabbed and Zombie friends that we should look deeper, and I recommend visiting both those blogs to learn more.

As Fox 8 TV first reported, Perricone allegedly wrote some incendiary words online. One comment invited people with guns to visit Mayor Ray Nagin’s home.

In June of 2009, “campstblue” writes, “For all of you who have a penchant for firearms and how they work, Ray Nagin lives on Park Island.”

What’s the purpose of that, other than to incite harm? That’s a hideous and inexcusable statement, especially for a crime-fighting federal prosecutor. Lord knows I carry no water for Nagin, but clearly Perricone should publicly apologize to the former mayor.

The second comment, also reported by Fox 8, deeply interested me.

[Perricone] defends the state’s other senator, David Vitter, in a 2009 post: “Let’s see if we have this correct. Some ignorant mutants want to attack Vitter for paying for sex when he wasn’t in the Senate. Now this bimbo got paid for having sex. Giving the convulsions this city went through in celebrating the Canal St cathouse, I would guess this [expletive deleted] will be treated like a debutante, as the madam was by the local media. David, you are fighting a sick culture.” “P.S. men don’t pay for sex. They pay the lady to go away.”

By the way, Sal Perricone worked as a prosecutor on the 2002 Canal Street brothel case, and on the day of indictments said this: “This case represents one of the vilest forms of exploitation there is… the exploitation of women.”

The unedited comment by campstblue can be found here. In my next post, I will explore Perricone’s defense of Vitter along with many other semi-related matters. But the 2002 Canal Street brothel case, which Perricone prosecuted, may serve as a revealing signpost for the inner-workings of the Federal investigation of River Birch, as well as the push-back by Team Heebe.

Many mock the brothel case as a waste of resources during the 9/11 era. But we’d do well to remember that the investigation, as Hugh Aynesworth reported in 2002, got started with a tip to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about a New Orleans brothel operating out of a house owned by the nephew of a deceased mob boss.

The woman who tipped off the FBI refused to give her name, but did provide the address of the brothel, several telephone numbers and the names of reputed prostitutes involved. She also said the property was owned by the Marcellos.

Carlos Marcello, considered by Mafia experts as one of the most powerful of the regional mob leaders in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, died several years ago, but law enforcement has been steadily watching other family members suspected of dealing in gambling, prostitution and other rackets.

It turned out that the property where the brothel was operating was owned by Vincent Marcello, nephew of Carlos.

The FBI interviewed Vincent Marcello and his attorneys, and were given assurances — and shown documents — that Mr. Marcello owned the property, but had evicted the renters because of neighbors’ complaints. The brothel had since moved a block or so away, into a stately old mansion on Canal Street. FBI agents, still not sure what they were onto but impressed with the high fees ($200 to $300 an hour) paid by the brothel’s clients, staked out the place.

So Marcello owned the house from which Jeanette Maier, the Canal Street Madam, allegedly operated, prior to her moving to Canal Street proper. If, as Aynesworth claims, the FBI was closely monitoring Marcello, is it plausible to suggest that the Feds might have suspected that a business relationship still existed between the Madam and her former landlord?

As Fox 8 reported, Perricone had previously decried prostitution as exploitative. But the madam couldn’t have exploited her sex workers without paying customers. In this case, her little black book included doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, City Council members, news anchors, parish presidents … etc. But perhaps neither the Madam nor her well-known johns were the big fish that the FBI was angling for.

Perhaps the brothel case is a good porthole through which to view the deeper currents at play in the current River Birch saga. There are many differences, of course. For one, the River Birch case involves a slew of named politicians, officials and businessmen. However, just as the madam wasn’t perhaps the ultimate prize of the Canal St. investigation, neither is Heebe the ultimate target of the River Birch case.

Some in the Slabbed and Zombie community are speculating that, once again, potential land and landlord issues are where we should be looking to unravel this puzzle.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...