Government & Politics
 

With staffers flacking online, Letten didn’t need enemies

Jim Letten

I’ve read several lamentations about the damage Perricone’s activities might have done to the image of Letten’s office in the public mind. But if the image conjured is, in fact, a more accurate one than what Letten’s fans in the press tend to cultivate then what will we have lost besides a distorting illusion? … US Attorney is a political office and a terribly powerful political office at that. Shouldn’t it be subjected to the most terrible scrutiny as a result?

~Jeffrey, author of the Library Chronicles blog, in a 3/23/12 post titled “How many bad apples”?

For years federal prosecutor Sal Perricone wrote online screeds on the nola.com comment boards, under aliases such as “campstblue” and “Henry L. Mencken1951.” Many of Perricone’s comments either defended the U.S. Attorney’s office, for which he worked, or attacked  perceived enemies of that office. He resigned in March after some of his online identities were discovered. The covert work he had done to support the federal prosecutor’s office had significantly undermined it.

Over the next eight months, with Perricone mostly silent on the interwebs, the federal prosecutor’s office blundered repeatedly. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten steadfastly maintained that no one in his office, especially no one in upper management, knew about Perricone’s online behavior, much less emulated it. Perricone had told Letten that his rants were a secret, so Letten portrayed Perricone as a lone wolf. Then the legal team for businessman Fred Heebe,* the same one that exposed four of Perricone’s online aliases, uncovered comments linked to First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann. She admitted to Letten that she had written comments and was demoted. Public perception of Letten’s fractured office is at a nadir.

Perricone’s online offerings seem tragically mistimed. Letten didn’t need Perricone’s anonymous help in previous years; the press basically loved him. In 2009 they were calling Letten’s team “untouchables.” They were so productive that little attention was paid to their past mistakes.

But over the course of the summer and early fall, Letten’s office could have used some of campstblue’s acid exhortations to, in short: Wake up! Come clean! Act like the good guys!

It’s clear that Letten didn’t thoroughly investigate the online evidence in the wake of Perricone’s resignation. Heck, if fellow online commenters came to suspect way back in 2009 that comment posted under one of Perricone’s aliases was likely the work of a U.S. attorney—which they did—surely trained investigators could have picked up on it as well.  And even a cursory review  would show that, in some posts, Perricone was playing to an audience of peers and perhaps colleagues. If Perricone was doing it, others might be as well, investigators should have surmised. In April of this year there were allegations that either Letten or Mann, his trusted second in command, were aware of Perricone’s posts.

But apparently Letten just took Perricone and Mann at their word, and left it at that.

If Perricone and Mann had been candid with their boss at the outset, and apologized and resigned, Letten might have survived this.  As it looks now, I don’t see how he can. Perricone and Mann could have said they were under pressure and blowing off steam. They could have admitted fault but also launched a First Amendment defense, saying they were posting as private citizens. And they could have said, “Hey, we know there’s umpteen other lawyers that smack-talk on nola.com. It’s common knowledge among the inside circles. Why not expose them, too?”

I realize it’s easy to tell others how they should have swallowed hard, resigned quickly from  dream jobs, and resisted the urge to deny all their embarrassing online improprieties. But the alternative route Mann and Perricone seem to have chosen—hunkering down behind denials and half-truths, misleading their boss, hoping to evade a real investigation—has inflicted maximum damage on their office, on Letten, and on their reputations.

I don’t think they could’ve played it to worse effect. And if it was anyone else, I’m sure Mencken would’ve been on the boards excoriating their stupidity.

Perhaps Mann and Perricone were blinded by loyalty, or justified their dissembling with some  “greater good” rationale. But, for me, this is like a slow motion current-events drama about the dangers of Pride. The first act, was lengthy and impressive. It included high profile convictions, a sustained media swoon, and years of anonymous advocacy on the comment boards. Good times. The second act began with Perricone’s exposure. And because the office opted to sweep the problem under the carpet rather than really clean house, a political move to replace Letten seems inevitable. Truly, I hope there’s a redemptive third act in store for Perricone and Mann, but right now that seems far away.

In his front-page story on Wednesday, Times-Picayune reporter John Simerman reported:

In a remarkable, scathing 50-page order, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt laid out a case of possible criminal misconduct by former federal prosecutor Sal Perricone and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann for lying over their involvement in the online posting scandal.

Engelhardt’s order “strongly urges”—with “strongly” in boldface—Letten’s office to appoint an independent counsel to probe what he labeled “skulduggery by the government.”

Engelhardt… painted Perricone and Jan Mann as online sneaks who posted biting commentary about federal targets behind Letten’s back and hung him out to dry.

Indeed, the order is brutal throughout. Engelhardt reviews recent facts, including Perricone’s testimony that his posts were “his secret” and Mann’s recent claim that she had “no real sense of what was happening” on nola.com. Totally unconvinced, Engelhardt cites Mann and Perricone’s intelligence to undermine their statements. He writes:

Quite simply, no one, especially this Court, could reasonably find it credible that Perricone and former First AUSA Mann, while posting under the same nola.com articles, and responding to and echoing each other’s posts, were unaware of the identity of the other. Any assertion to the contrary belies the fact that both Perricone and then-First AUSA Mann are highly intelligent, experienced investigators and very capable prosecutors; and it is truly hard to believe that such seasoned, savvy and keenly insightful individuals, charged with unraveling the most complex white collar crimes in this District, would completely and totally overlook such an obvious thing, especially considering the information set forth in the posts of each. To even think as much strains credulity well beyond the breaking point. Surely, the particular posts of “eweman” and “legacyusa”, et al., stood out quite dramatically amongst the quotidian posts of many others.

Moral of the story: If you parade your smarts and insider knowledge in hundreds of comments, you’re going to attract attention. And once that attention is directed at your work, you better own it. You can’t just start “forgetting” immense archives of material. You can’t suggest, as Perricone recently did in sworn testimony, that others may have infiltrated his user account and somehow duplicated his singular style in authoring embarrassing or unethical statements about the targets of federal investigations.

Engelhardt’s order cites an interview Perricone did with New Orleans Magazine in which he  invited scrutiny. Perricone said he “wants to be investigated.” To which Engelhardt responded tersely: “So be it.” The judge goes on to present a steamroller of an argument that demolishes many of Perricone and Mann’s recent denials and evasions.

However, on page fourteen of the order Engelhardt overreaches a bit. He writes:

Perricone denied using any other fictitious names or assumed personas on nola.com, including “eweman.” He was specifically asked whether he knew who “eweman” was, and responded with a simple “no.”

However, the accompanying footnote (#18) does not support Engelhardt’s claim that Perricone flatly “denied using any other fictitious names.” The footnote quotes testimony taken on October 10, 2012, when the government questioned Perricone:

Q. In addition to “legacyusa,” “Henry Mencken,” “dramatis personae,” and “campstblue,” did you use any other screen names on NOLA.com?

A. I have no recollection of using any other names, no, sir.

Q. Okay. What about “TANFOGLIO51″?

A. No. That, for sure, I would never use. Which I’ve never heard of that name.

Q. “Jeff Corrupt”?

A. No.

Q. “Toomuchcorruption”?

A. No.

Q. “E-W-E man”?

A. No.

Q. Do you know who any of those people are?

A. No.

I can’t believe they didn’t ask Perricone about “martyfed,” another username I strongly believe he used. Since Perricone said he couldn’t remember using any aliases other than the four he owned up to, perhaps I can provide some of that “terrible scrutiny” advocated by Jeffrey in Library Chronicles and invited by Perricone himself in the New Orleans Magazine interview. Since “martyfed” wasn’t on the feds’ radar Iast month, I’ll present more supportive evidence tying “martyfed” posts to those of “campstblue,” which Perricone has admitted to authoring.

I reviewed the 2008-09 blog.nola.com archives for comment posted under T-P columns by James Gill and Stephanie Grace. Here’s what I found.

In Nov 2008 Gill wrote a column praising Letten. It begins:

Letten is a newspaperman’s nightmare. You can’t laugh at him because he never says anything stupid. You can’t blast him because he is scrupulously fair. He works tirelessly putting crooks in stir, but is a most amiable fellow.

Then it ends:

There may well be fresh Democratic faces out there who will perform well as U.S. Attorney, although it is inconceivable that any of them would be an improvement on what we have. … U.S. Attorneys often are mere figureheads, and it may not always matter that much, provided the rest of the staff is up to snuff, which it clearly is in New Orleans.

There are no comments from Perricone, or anyone, under that column.

However, despite the direct praise for his work, Perricone regularly lambastes Gill. Perricone’s aliases accuse the columnist of being allergic to facts, and of substituting wit for wisdom. He repeatedly claims Gill drinks too much and hates Italians. This is mostly done through the “campstblue” alias, but “martyfed” pops up from time to time, with the same voice, same tone, same signature phrases and words. Some examples:

Here is an instance of sockpuppetry by “martyfed” who supports “campstblue’s” apparent argument in favor of Intelligent Design.

Here, “martyfed” uses the word “august” in sarcastic fashion, which is also “campstblue’s” penchant.

Here, “martyfed” uses the word “atavistic”, which “campstblue” often does, especially when describing doomed New Orleans.

Here, “martyfed” uses the word “debutantes” another favorite word of “campstblue.”

Here “martyfed” makes a point about “pulpit pimps” without using the term, however he does use one of the words that helped unmask Perricone’s “Mencken” identity: “redoubt”.

Here, “martyfed” explicitly uses the term  “pulpit pimps.” (Update: the term is a favorite of of campstblue’s).

Here, “martyfed” sounds exactly like “campstblue” when he implies Gill goes to lunch with Jim Brown. Both “campstblue” and “martyfed” like to imply that Gill goes to lunch with sources that have served time in penitentiaries.

Here, again, “martyfed” and “campstblue” appear on the same thread. They both make reference to Gill’s English descent—another abiding obsession of Perricone’s aliases.

Here, more sockpuppetry by “martyfed” and “campstblue” in which they rail against coastal reclamation advocate King Milling in comments posted under an article on a T-P  “Loving Cup” award article.

More evidence here.

“Martyfed” posts brim with the same certitude familiar from Perricone’s acknowledged posts.  One wonders if Perricone used any other handles, which also raises the question of how many handles Mann used. I’m sure we’re in for a number of discoveries, as scrutiny of the federal prosecutor’s office intensifies.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Heebe has been indicted. He has not.

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