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Writing analysis unearths rogue federal prosecutor

Mar. 23, 2012 - 06:00AM   |  
By KEVIN JOHNSON   |   Comments

When a court-appointed special investigator issued a blistering report last week, alleging "astonishing" misconduct by federal prosecutors in the corruption trial of then-Alaska senator Ted Stevens, the Justice Department quickly responded.

It countered that the lawyers' alleged roles in concealing information from the defense and suborning perjury were "rare occurrences."

The 525-page report offered a damning account of the federal government's actions involving Stevens, but it also obscured a fast-developing story of another case of alleged prosecutorial misconduct in New Orleans.

Sal Perricone, one of the region's most prominent federal prosecutors, was unmasked by a former FBI profiler as the previously anonymous online commenter who offered running remarks on his own pending cases and disparaging comments against defense attorneys, judges and some of his own colleagues.

In one comment, posted on the New Orleans Times-Picayune's NOLA.com website under the pseudonym "Henry L. Mencken1951," he said that a local federal judge "loves killers." He also wrote that his boss, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, "is great for taking credit for other people's hard work."

Letten, who said the prosecutor admitted to him that he wrote the posts, accepted Perricone's resignation earlier this week and referred the case to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility for further investigation.

"Our partners must know that absolutely none of the comments, criticisms or characterizations made were in any way reflective of my views or opinions, or those of the (Justice) Department or this office or our people," Letten said. "To the contrary, we resoundingly reject the caustic criticisms and sentiments expressed in these messages."

Perricone's wife, Mary Fernandez, referred questions to his New Orleans lawyer, who didn't respond to requests for comment.

Unraveling so close in time to the Stevens report, the Perricone case has again cast an unflattering light on the Justice Department. But the back story of how Perricone was identified is as remarkable as the prosecutor's alleged indiscretions.

In the end, the crucial evidence against Perricone wasn't a fingerprint, DNA or the grainy images from a security camera, but rather a detailed analysis of his own writings.

A former FBI profiler hired by a local businessman whose firm is linked to a federal investigation and who also had become a frequent target of Perricone's alleged quips said Henry L. Mencken1951's use of arcane vocabulary, metaphor and melodic alliteration offered strong evidence that the commenter was actually Perricone.

The analysis, authored by James Fitzgerald, who brought his linguistic acumen to bear in the FBI's hunt for the Unabomber, compared language used in more than 500 postings in the past eight months to a Dec. 27 court document co-authored by Perricone.

Citing an ongoing investigation, Fitzgerald, now a principal in a Virginia forensic behavioral sciences firm, declined comment. But in a detailed report filed in federal court, the profiler said Mencken's posts shared "many similiarities" with Perricone's December court document, including the use of particular "archaic words" or phrases. Among them: "dubiety," "redoubt" and "altar of."

Fitzgerald's report said the writings also shared "distinctive punctuation and the use of the rhetorical technique of alliteration."

Specifically, the profiler cited a Aug. 26 posting in which Mencken described a New Orleans police official as a "bedecked, bedazzled bafoon (sic)." In a separate Nov. 2 missive, he characterized part of the local community as "gun-toting, under-educated, under-motivated, under-skilled, under-supervised, under-policed, over-armed, late-sleeping citizens."

"After analyzing the posts and comparing them to the (Perricone) pleading," the analysis concluded, "the Mencken posts and the Dec. 27 pleading display the same highly distinctive writing style, which ... suggests a high likelihood of common authorship between the two pieces."

Ftizgerald also cited one other important clue to the mystery: the reference to "1951" attached to the Mencken pseudonym. It is the year of Perricone's birth.

Kevin Johnson reports for USA Today.

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