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Federal prosecutor taken off cases for web posts about owner at center of investigation

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten says a prosecutor on his staff has been anonymously posting negative comments about the owner of a suburban New Orleans landfill at the center of a federal investigation.

At a news conference on Thursday, Letten said Assistant U.S. Attorney Salvador Perricone told him Tuesday that he made hundreds of posts at nola.com, companion website of The Times-Picayune, using the username "Henry L. Mencken1951."

Letten said he has referred the matter to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility.

Earlier this week, River Birch landfill owner Fred Heebe sought a state court order to question Perricone about whether he made the posts.

"In addition to containing a number of false and defamatory statements about Mr. Heebe, the Mencken posts reveal a level of knowledge about the inner workings of the (U.S. attorney's office) that is well beyond what could be expected of even the most diligent outside observer," Heebe's lawyers wrote in the court filing.

Heebe hasn't been charged with a crime, but a company executive is charged with plotting to defraud a construction management company.

Letten said Perricone has been removed from all cases that were subjects of his Web posts, but he wouldn't specify which cases.

Letten said he hopes Perricone's actions don't have a negative impact on any of the cases he has handled.

"Sal is a professional and readily acknowledged his conduct," Letten said.

A voice mail left for Perricone at his office was not immediately returned Thursday.

To support the charge, Heebe's lawyers pointed to similarities in language and writing style used in the posts and in court filings. They also charged the author of the Mencken posts seemed to be well aware of internal workings of Letten's office and routinely expressed dismay that rank-and-file prosecutors don't get more credit.

"Mencken" invokes the name of a famous Baltimore Sun columnist from the early 20th century. Roughly 600 comments had been posted on nola.com under the username.

River Birch and Perricone also are involved in the federal case against a former Louisiana wildlife official who pleaded guilty last year to charges he took more than $463,000 in payoffs from a landfill company owner's businesses to reward him for work in trying to keep a rival landfill closed.

The landfill company owner is identified only as "co-conspirator `A"' in the indictment against former state Wildlife and Fisheries Commissioner Henry Mouton, but the document says Mouton touted River Birch. The company is co-owned by Heebe.

Federal agents raided River Birch's offices in suburban Gretna 2010 and seized documents. Perricone had been one of the prosecutors assigned to Mouton's case.

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