Beginning in November 2007 and continuing through mid-March 2012, an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, under various pseudonyms, frequently posted online comments, which concerned a myriad of subjects, but in pertinent part related to cases which he and/or his colleagues were assigned to prosecute. When discovered, Mr. Perricone’s actions caused significant actual harm to the prosecution of the River Birch and Danziger Bridge cases, posed a potential risk to the Jefferson and Gill-Pratt prosecutions, and resulted in profound damage to the reputation of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Although stipulating to a violation of Rule 3.6, the Court noted that Perricone “did not make the posts with the specific intent to harm the outcome of the various criminal proceedings.” At the same time, however, (and having also stipulated to the violation of Rule 3.8(f)), the respondent knew that his online posts were forbidden, and ” acted intentionally in that he intended his posts would have the effect of heightening public condemnation of the individuals referenced in the formal charges.”
In formulating the appropriate sanction, the Louisiana Supreme Court begins “from the well-settled proposition that public officials (and prosecutors in particular) are held to a higher standard than ordinary attorneys. Respondent was clearly in an important position of public trust. His actions betrayed that trust and caused actual harm to pending prosecutions. Once discovered, his conduct tarnished the reputation of the USAO and brought the entire legal profession into disrepute.”
Then, in a general admonishment to all members of the bar, the Court continued:
“In this age of social media, it is important for all attorneys to bear in mind that ‘the vigorous advocacy we demand of the legal profession is accepted because it takes place under the neutral, dispassionate control of the judicial system.’ As the U.S. Supreme Court in Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada wisely explained, ‘a profession which takes just pride in these traditions may consider them disserved if lawyers use their skills and insight to make untested allegations in the press instead of in the courtroom.’ Respondent’s conscious decision to vent his anger by posting caustic, extrajudicial comments about pending cases strikes at the heart of the neutral dispassionate control which is the foundation of our system. Our decision today must send a strong message to respondent and to all the members of the bar that a lawyer’s ethical obligations are not diminished by the mask of anonymity provided by the Internet.”
In re Perricone, 2018-1233 (La. 12/5/2018), 263 So.3d 309.