Opinion
 

Letten at the plate: Was the federal prosecutor using a corked bat?

Some fellow pundits claim the scandals involving online comments and possible prosecutorial misconduct only tarnish the terminal months of Jim Letten’s legacy as U.S. Attorney in New Orleans. They’re a stain at the end of his distinguished tenure, according to WWL’s Clancy Dubos. A bad final chapter in an otherwise great book of accomplishments, according to WGSO radio host Kaare Johnson.

It’s as if Letten were at bat in the bottom of the ninth inning, and struck out on a wicked slider thrown by businessman (and former federal target) Fred Heebe. Then he retired. You can’t boo a Hall of Famer for one untimely lapse, can you?

Corked bat

Daniel Russell

Corked bat

But maybe the baseball analogy is too generous. What if the potential misconduct and cover ups in Letten’s office were something more than a game-ending blunder? As a thought experiment, let’s adjust the baseball parallel: What if Heebe’s pitch shattered Letten’s bat, and exposed a cork center? Uh, oh. How do we react to that sort of shocker? Do we just assume it was the first time our hero broke the rules? Do we blame the batter’s teammates or the bat boy? If the “villains” on the other team were similarly exposed, would we give them the benefit of the doubt?

Thousands of anonymous online comments made over four years, many of them related to federal investigations, do not amount to a discrete and singular lapse. They raise questions, and the answers to those questions might potentially rewrite the prior record of Letten’s tenure in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

At minimum, Letten should have been aware what his top staff were up to. More importantly, he should have insisted on a thorough investigation after the revelations began. Instead, the most generous interpretation available right now is that Letten’s top prosecutors, Jan Mann and Sal Perricone, betrayed their boss. Letten’s trusted, longtime assistants secretly played online games behind his back, often during working hours, and were never upfront about the extent of their shenanigans. Instead they fed their boss partial truths and false statements, which he repeated to the public for months.

If that interpretation is accurate, what does it say about Letten that his top prosecutors felt free, publicly but anonymously, to hype their team’s accomplishments and condemn federal targets before trial? What does it say about Mann that she whitewashed the internal investigation into the online comments? Obviously she thought she could deceive Letten in the course of protecting herself. And it worked (for a few months).

It’s not completely out of line to wonder if such perfidy had occurred previously.

If, 13 months ago, you predicted all the online underhandedness, the bogus investigations, the false denials, the multiple retirements of Letten’s top brass in the year to come, you’d have been put in a mental ward. Now add to that sequence the stunning abandonment of the River Birch corruption probe, and the speculation about serious prosecutorial misconduct. (The Department of Justice has already admitted to mishandling evidence). Considered together, how can we assume this was just a one-time “error?” At this point, isn’t the more natural question: “How long has this has been going on?”

Let’s review what we already know about the commenting scandal that’s developed over the past year. In a future post, we’ll look into the allegations of other kinds of misconduct.

To recap: Heebe’s legal team linked federal prosecutor Sal Perricone to online posts on nola.com authored under the “HenryL.Mencken1951” username, among others. Some of the posts related to federal investigations. Perricone admitted authorship to Letten, and promptly retired. In the internal investigation that followed, headed by First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann, Perricone maintained the online rants were his alone. In a later interview Perricone confirmed he wrote under four aliases, but that they were all his “secret.” Letten stood by Mann’s findings, and denied claims that others in upper management wrote online.

Then Heebe’s legal team used linguistic evidence to expose Mann as nola.com commenter “eweman,” the author of dozens of posts in 2011 and 2012 that dealt with River Birch and other matters under federal probe. Both Letten and Mann retired shortly after that disclosure. (Mann’s husband, another U.S. attorney, also retired.)

Fascinated by the scandal, I wrote several posts analyzing the developments. Here’s a Q & A summary of what I uncovered:

Did Perricone write under usernames besides the four he admitted to in sworn testimony (“campstblue,” “legacyusa,” “dramatis personae,” and “HenryL.Mencken1951”)? My analysis says yes: He may also have written as “martyfed.”

In his interview with New Orleans Magazine, Perricone said he’d sworn off online commenting. “I’m not a recidivist,” he said. How’d he do? Not so well. After making his promise Perricone continued to write as “jack” and “ccjames,” or so it seems to me.

Was Perricone’s online identity “his secret,” as he claimed? Very unlikely. Nola.com commenter “muspench” found a conversation between “YellowPocahantas2” and “Mencken” that suggests she knew his true identity.

Was the nola.com commenting purely an “intellectual outlet,” as Perricone claimed? Not so much! Perricone used sockpuppetry (posing as different usernames in the same thread) to push his views online. The sockpuppetry shows he was deceptively attempting to mold public opinion, not merely enjoy freedom of expression as a private citizen.

Did others suspect Perricone was a fed? Yes, repeatedly, and starting a long time ago.  From the outset of the scandal, I was troubled by the hubris shown in Perricone’s comments. Other commenters, such as ”brlawyer” and “truthisit” suspected he was a U.S. Attorney. Granted, there’s no shortage of paranoid identity-guessing in the nola.com forums. Even “HenryL.Mencken1951” would succumb to it from time to time. But still, these examples stuck out because they implied a recklessness on Perricone’s part. Even after commenters began to suspect his true identity, he preferred to tell white lies and change usernames, rather than end the public rants.

What about Mann? Did she have other online identities, prior to eweman? My analysis says yes. She may also have been “bowatch.” Interestingly, “bowatch” and “martyfed” appeared on the same threads in 2009 — two-and-a-half years before she commented as “eweman.” This suggests a much longer-term collusion between the office mates, one that has potential ramifications for all sorts of cases and convictions between 2009 and 2011. (I haven’t discovered an interim alias between the “bowatch” and “eweman” posts that sounds like Mann.) Why did these federal prosecutors feel the need to push their agendas — usually on topics relating to their work — at a time when the press was already in their pocket? I have no idea. Were the cases not as strong as everyone assumed?

Perricone said his comments were mere free speech as a private citizen — doesn’t he have a point? Not a good one. But ”jack,” presumably Perricone, makes a detailed argument here. The central thrust is basically: It wasn’t illegal, and you can’t prove that harm occurred!

Funny how Perricone and Mann raved for years about the impartiality and professionalism and effectiveness of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and Letten spoke about his team’s “sacred mission.” Now we’ve devolved to “wasn’t illegal” as the standard of acceptability. Still, it appears some posts attributed to Perricone revealed confidential information about investigations, and there is no doubt that both prosecutors violated their duty to not “heighten public condemnation of the accused.”

How would you feel if prosecutors were ranting about you on a near daily basis in the region’s most trafficked comment forum? Or how about this: What if the Judge was ranting about you?  In a recent radio show, Johnson said he’d heard rumors about the online comment plague infecting even the judiciary (my sources told me the same thing months ago). Hell, Mann herself asserted the same until a federal judge called her on it and demanded that she name names. (She backtracked.)

Were others in the U.S. Attorney’s Office involved? Quite likely! I would point you to “FSU1982” and possibly “painman11” as usernames of interest.

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  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    What if Letten was on performace-enhancing drugs?

  • Mark Moseley

    I don’t think the Justache was juiced.

  • Randall Cajun

    Agree on YellowPocohontas2 and the rumors about FSU1982 abound. bowatch sounds right too. You might want to look into recent allegations in a federal civil suit about AMV’s sock puppetry. She was informing the USAO at the time Sal was there as part of the triumverate. An interesting letter related to the Concrete Busters lawsuit against Heeve & River Birch came to light as well: http://real-malice.blogspot.fr/2013/03/bloggers-lies-betrayed-no-more-hands-to.html