Order in Danziger case again highlights possible leak, perjury

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt has previously expressed grave doubts about whether former federal prosecutor Sal Perricone told the truth when asked about an online post he authored that may have leaked news of a grand jury probe.

Such a leak would violate federal rules and put Perricone at risk of being held in contempt of court; lying about the leak under oath, meanwhile, could result in a perjury charge.

Last week, the judge made clear that his doubts about Perricone’s veracity are even greater than they were in November, when he bluntly suggested Perricone had perjured himself.

In the middle of his 129-page order last week tossing the convictions of five former New Orleans Police Department officers in the Danziger Bridge shootings, Engelhardt revisits Perricone’s October testimony and concludes that it “cannot possibly be true.”

On the stand, the former prosecutor was asked about a 2011 post by “campstblue” — one of several handles Perricone has admitted using — that asked: “When is somebody going to ask (New Orleans City Councilman James) Carter what his involvement was in the failed Algiers Landing project?”

The project in question, actually called Algiers Crossing, set in motion a federal grand jury probe into a possible conflict of interest on the part of Carter. The councilman helped broker an agreement between the project’s developers and opponents, including the pastor of a church where Carter was a deacon.

The probe ended without charges and was unknown to the public until Perricone’s unmasking led reporters and others to examine the hundreds of comments he authored on Nola.com.

On the witness stand last year, Perricone testified that he was actually talking about the downgrading of crimes by police in Algiers, not the grand jury probe.

“Let me tell you what this is about, the whole story,” Perricone said, according to Engelhardt’s November order. “I’m sitting in CC’s one day, before Katrina, two guys from the 4th District in Algiers are talking about how the police department is downgrading signals when tourists are crossing the ferry landing over at the Algiers Point. ... There are people getting robbed and they’re downgrading to ... lost-or-stolen to get the stats down.”

Asked what any of that had to do with James Carter, Perricone testified that he told the two officers: “If you can’t get satisfaction from the police department, go talk to the city councilman, Carter.”

In Perricone’s telling, the officers replied: “Are you kidding me? He’s (Carter’s) involved in it.”

Engelhardt was dubious at the time, calling the explanation “oddly incongruous” and wondering why Perricone had mentioned “developers” and a “failed project” in the context of police statistics. However, he missed one incongruity in Perricone’s story — his contention that the episode occurred before Katrina.

Carter wasn’t elected to the City Council until after the storm. The judge has since taken note of that slip up, and he teed off on Perricone at some length in his new ruling.

“Perricone’s explanation of his posts regarding a DOJ grand jury investigation of ‘the failed Algiers Landing project’ garnered the Court’s interest, as his explanation did not appear to make sense at the time,” Engelhardt wrote this week. “Further demonstrating the infirmity of Perricone’s proffered explanation of the posts is its factual falsity. That is, Perricone testified that, ‘before Katrina,’ he spoke to two NOPD officers in a coffee shop about the ‘downgrading’ of criminal activity at the Algiers Point ferry landing.

“...With that explanation, Perricone purported to put to rest the Court’s concern about a leak of the grand jury investigation. ... Unfortunately, however, Perricone’s explanation cannot possibly be true, as James Carter was not elected to the New Orleans City Council until the spring of 2006 ... and did not take office until June 2006. Along with the other passages the Court previously cited, in its November 2012 Order, this discrepancy cannot be considered minor, as it relates to a grand jury proceeding that was subsequently confirmed to be underway at the time of Perricone’s posts.”

In November, Engelhardt highlighted Perricone’s testimony and urged the appointment of a special prosecutor to dig deeper. Several legal observers interviewed by The New Orleans Advocate said the judge’s renewed spotlight on the Algiers Landing revelation suggests Engelhardt is urging further action on the part of the Justice Department — perhaps an indictment.

“It is clear that Judge Engelhardt wants these and other stones overturned,” said Dane Ciolino, a professor at Loyola Law School. “But as a judge, he doesn’t have a roving commission to flip over stones. He expects the government and other lawyer regulatory bodies to continue the investigation. His opinion expressly says as much.”

Ben Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School who has been following the fallout from the commenting scandal, said: “Certainly what Engelhardt is doing is suggesting to the U.S. Attorney that Perricone may have lied and that they should consider investigating it. My guess is that the U.S. Attorney will look at it closely.”

The judge’s order may also push the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which also is looking into the matter, to pursue sanctions against Perricone, Gershman said.

Perricone’s attorney John Litchfield did not return repeated calls for comment Friday.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, ascribed similar aims to Engelhardt’s revisiting of the “Algiers Landing” comment.

The judge may be pushing for “strong action,” including a possible perjury prosecution, against Perricone, she said. And at the same time, he is “sending a message to bar (association) authorities about the flagrant nature of the behavior.”

Editor’s note: This story was altered Sept. 26 to correct the date of Perricone’s post.