Another major Justice Department civil rights case is now being challenged by local New Orleans officials because of the on-line commenting scandal in the U.S. Attorney’s office that led to long-time top federal prosecutor Jim Letten’s resignation.
The City of New Orleans filed a motion Friday to abandon a costly consent decree between its police department and the Department of Justice aimed at curbing police abuses.
The reason? Asssistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone, who has since resigned, harbored ambitions to become the new superintendent of police, but nonetheless was involved in the negotiations over the consent decree even as he was making online anonymous comments disparaging the police, the City of New Orleans filing said.
Perricone, who wrote comments on the New Orleans Times Picayune’s NOLA.com website under several monikers, anonymously bullied the candidate eventually selected as superintendent, Ronal Serpas. Perricone called his apparent rival fat, corrupt and the type to “run to the camera and microphones” rather than effect meaningful reform.
In what the city interpreted as Perricone’s way of promoting himself for the job, the prosecutor repeatedly commented that only the federal Justice Department could clean up the police.
“The DOJ can’t get here soon enough…. Perhaps the truth will surface. God knows, we need more truth in this city,” Perricone wrote in an Aug. 27, 2011 comment under a moniker that masked his identity.
Referring to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, another Perricone comment demanded: “OR ONE OF HIS BOYS OR GIRLS TO BE THE NEXT CHIEF!!!!!!” (March 09, 2010)
“The City thought that it had a partner in DOJ, which would assist in [reforming the NOPD],” Friday’s motion reads, “but it now realizes that it has been misled.”
The online commenting scandal has already jeopardized the Danziger Bridge convictions that landed NOPD officers behind bars after they were convicted of killing two people and wounding four in the anarchy following Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. A judge in November ordered the New Orleans U.S. Attorney’s office to reopen an investigation into leaks in the case that the defendants claim were intended to poison public opinion about them. (See Main Justice’s full report here).
Money for something
As with most breakups, the city claims this one began with a disagreement over money.
In May 2010, reeling still from the Danziger Bridge shootings, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu “invited the DOJ to join with him in reforming the NOPD,” the motion reads. After nearly a year of investigation, DOJ released a letter of sweeping findings, followed by a draft of a consent decree in October 2011.
The city expressed a willingness to work with DOJ but said it lacked funding to institute DOJ’s suggested changes.
“Time and again the City requested assistance with funding from DOJ to implement the reforms,” the motion reads. “These requests fell on deaf ears.”
Regardless, a consent decree was eventually signed between DOJ and the city this past July. But Friday’s motion suggests that a second consent decree, signed on December 12 between DOJ and the city’s Sheriff’s Department to reform the Orleans Parish Prison, added millions to the consent decree’s price tag. This blindsided a city government already in financial trouble, the motion argues.
“Had the City known in July 2012 that a few months later the DOJ would be seeking at least an additional $12.5 million dollars to fund the OPP consent decree, it would not have signed the NOPD consent decree and committed to the financial obligations associated with it,” the motion reads.
Perricone’s mouthing off through the anonymous handles “Henry L. Mencken1951” and “legacyusa” – along with similar comments by then-First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann – led to turmoil in the office. Perricone, Mann and Letten all resigned. (Read all of Mencken’s 594 comments here.)
But Friday’s motion by the city takes the scandal to a new depth under the darkly sarcastic heading “Sal Perricone Seems to Have Had Ulterior Motives.”
Perricone’s online postings amounted to an elaborate scheme to “poison the well” of public opinion, the motion claims. Motivated by deep bias and an ambition to be named NOPD’s next superintendent, Perricone became fixated on torpedoing NOPD’s reform efforts while acting dishonestly as DOJ’s “point person” on consent decree negotiations.
Perricone’s anonymous comments were the words of a man “touting his own attributes online and persistently ranting to have the Mayor appoint him NOPD Superintendent,” the motion reads.
For example: Early in negotiations, in 2010 and early 2011, while DOJ conducted an exhaustive investigation into NOPD actions, “legacyusa” chastised the mayor with the following: “Get a police chief who knows how to fight corruption, Mitch!!!!!!” (February 11, 2010). And, “Mitch, put a federal presence in the police department!!!!!!!” (February 27, 2010)
When Perricone was not named as a finalist for the superintendent’s position, he took to the web both as “legacyusa” and as “Henry L. Mencken1951” to go after the man who would eventually take the position, NOPD Superintendent Serpas:
“If we get Serpas, it won’t be that much different. Get the FEDs in there now, Mitch.” (May 01, 2010)
“Well it, indeed, looks like he was the choice from day one. All one has to do is read the criteria the mayor wanted—it seemed to be tailored for Serpas. ps: can you lose some weight. We have enough fat cops in New Orleans.” (May 7, 2010)
“Ronal Serpas and Mitch Landrieu are the Les Miles of city executives. Alll [sic] they can do is TALK, TALK, TALK TALK. Whenever it gets bad, they run to the camera and microphones. TALK,TALK, TALK. This the political solution to a massive social problem they are incapable of solving.NO MORE NEWS CONFERENCES. Get the job done!!! ACT!!!” (January 14, 2012)
And when DOJ released its findings, Perricone’s animosity only grew more vitriolic, confident, and verbose:
“When the feds get in there, they need to investigate the paid details structure and determine who getting what… therein lies the big surprise. The nasty little secrets about to be exposed… Hey feds, check out the tax returns for the NOPD, if you can find them.” (April 13, 2010)
“The NOPD will never change if left to its own devices. It’s a corrupt culture which has existed for years. I am opposed to the Federal government residing in our lives, but this is one time I can make an exception.” (February 05, 2012)
“While these heros [sic] are making promises, where is the consent decree they promised? You can’t have reform without the Justice Department in this city. I financially support Mitch, but I beginning to have second thoughts. SHUT UP AND PRODUCE!!!!” (November 22, 2011)
Perricone’s comments “tainted the entire negotiation process” of the consent decree, the motion concludes.
Federal gun to the head?
No one argues that the still-widening comment debacle hasn’t sullied negotiations between the City of New Orleans and the Department of Justice. But as Ramon Antonio Vargas argued in the Times-Picayune, the real problem with the consent decree is the millions at stake to repair the Orleans Parish Prison. Friday’s motion puts the unexpected additional payments at $12.5 million; Vargas’ story puts them at $17 million. If forced to come up with that cash, Mayor Landrieu would be forced to “carve deeply into city services,” Vargas writes, “lay off or hand month-long furloughs to the municipality’s workers; or hike municipal taxes.”
The prospect is bleak.
“What is concerning me is that the relationship the Justice Department has now engaged in with the sheriff has a gun to the city’s head,” Landrieu first told the Times-Picayune last week.
The Justice Department is nonplussed.
“We are disappointed with the city’s misguided rejection of this collaborative response through baseless claims that impede the reform process,” according to a DOJ press release quoted at WWLTV.com. “The city’s legal team was at the table with the Civil Rights Division throughout the negotiations of both the jail and police department consent decrees. Without these consent decrees the criminal justice system in New Orleans will remain broken, a fate neither the residents of New Orleans nor the hard working members of the New Orleans Police Department deserve.”