Opinion
 

‘Commentgate’ isn’t going away any time soon — nor should it

More strange stuff coming our way as the Commentgate Carnival continues.

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More strange stuff is coming our way as the Commentgate Carnival continues.

The parades are over and Lent is here.  But a second Carnival season looms — one that promises to be no fun at all.

In a regular Mardi Gras we get to abandon our identities and join a dionysian throng. But in this bizarro-world Carnival-to-come, we’re tasked with un-masking and identifying individuals hiding in the crowd. The stakes are high in this strange parade, information scarce, and worst of all there’s little sense of levity.

We’re referring of course to the rumbling scandal in which figures high in the federal justice system made pseudonymous comments under stories on NOLA.com. Commentgate, as I’ll call it until a better name surfaces, has already led to dropped criminal probes, high-profile retrials and stunning resignations in the local office of the U.S. attorney.

Made from 2008 to 2012, the online postings by federal prosecutors continue to reverberate throughout the justice system. The comments provided a basis for U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt’s order to retry New Orleans police officers convicted of killing unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge in Katrina’s aftermath. It was a stunning reversal of a landmark civil rights verdict.

The postings helped businessman (and former federal target) Fred Heebe, whose legal team outed commenter “Henry L. Mencken1951” in March 2012. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone copped to the alias and soon retired. Later that year Heebe’s team unmasked First U.S. Attorney Jan Mann as “eweman.” Mann retired, along with her colleague and husband Jim Mann. Their boss, longtime U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, also stepped down.

But that was just “the tip of the iceberg,” according to Heebe. He was right.  Not long afterward the government dropped its criminal investigation of the River Birch landfill business he co-owned. Since then we’ve learned that U.S. Justice Department attorney Karla Dobinski posted comments on the Danziger trial, and so did an unnamed FBI agent.

Those tidbits are important and still startling. But I fear their constant repetition during this fact-starved scandal leads us to wrongly presume we grasp its full dimensions. We don’t. Repeat after me: WE DON’T KNOW JACK SQUAT. The next time you read an article on Commentgate — and you will— whisper that mantra under your breath.

We’re two years deep in this scandal and still can’t answer any of the fundamental questions: How many feds were making comments? How many usernames were used? How many comments were written?

Based on my research I’ll wager that there are many thousands of undiscovered comments written by feds who are supposed to be impartial servants of the law.

Then there’s the content of the posts: What did they say? What did they reveal? Did federal prosecutors push a common agenda? Did they not just “appear” on certain comment threads, but dominate them? To what extent did they work together? To what extent did they use deceptive tactics like sockpuppetry to bully other participants in these online gatherings around the crackerbarrel?

Two years into a mega-scandal, we’re still lurching along in fits and starts. (Mostly fits.) To root out a commenter in a particular case, it seems we have to wait until the defense team decides that it suits the client’s interests, or until a federal judge launches his own investigation. We deserve better.

As Engelhardt recommended, we need a painfully thorough, independent investigation of Commentgate, with findings made public (unlike the still-sealed Horn report). After all, there might be  some commenters still working in the U.S. Attorney’s office now headed by Kenneth Polite. By laying low and staying mum, they may have jeopardized more recent federal trials.

How many more federal prosecutors and Department of Justice attorneys and FBI agents need to be outed as commenters before the general public demands a full account? Without one, how can we avoid a steady loss of confidence in the justice system? In coming columns I’ll provide fresh Commentgate disclosures, while also pointing out a possible investigative path forward through this murky milieu.

Clearly, my skepticism is off the charts at this point. Previous columns that seemed recklessly speculative now appear embarrassingly tame. I’ve steadfastly predicted more disclosures in this saga, and continue to do so. Just keep in mind, we don’t know the half of it.

Yesterday’s cold and rainy Mardi Gras was a miserable “Carnival atmosphere.” But it might have been good preparation for the strange season to come.

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  • Clay Kirby

    Hmmm:

    “aircheck is Jim Letten”

    http://www.theamericanzombie.cAir check 02/the-th-estate.html?showComment=1392780051948&m=1#c4534960160486209112

    If that accusation turns out true, there will be hell to pay.

    Aircheck (whoever it is) commented on the Nagin trial (amongst others).

    A sample:

    Article: “Nagin, Meffert on witness list for crime camera trial” Aircheck comment “Yeah! Cant wait to get to the bottom of this pit”

    He also thought Jimmy Carter was senile, Kanye West was a thug, and had quite a few ACA comments.

  • Clay Kirby

    And, yes, I used an anonymous comment as a citation in a story about anonymous commenting.

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    This article is about a specific subset of anonymous commenting, namely when a person in a position of public trust pretends to be an outside objective observer and uses community features (like comments on articles) to attack/discredit a person or group.

  • nickelndime

    ANONYMITY has its perks. Recall an early significant psychological study in which some students were masked jail keepers (jailors) and some (unmasked) students were the (jailees). The treatment handed out by the masked keepers was determined by “controlled” observers to be vicious as compared to keepers whose identity was known. OMG! OMG! Which goes to show that masked/anonymous humans are less restrained and less inhibited to express themselves, operate without fear of reproach… (so many benefits and so little time) Ha! Now generally, what does that say about human nature?! (LOL and rolling on the floor)

  • nickelndime

    Remember in “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), Bruce sings about a disappointing development, “That waitress I was seeing lost her desire for me.” “She said she won’t set herself on fire for me anymore”? Enjoyed your post, Sandy.

  • Jason Brad Berry

    “namely when a person in a position of public trust ”

    That’s a slippery slope, Sandy. I’m not sure I agree with that statement. A judge commenting on a case? That’s a problem. A police officer commenting anonymously on corruption within a police department? Their anonymity should absolutely be protected.

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    In your scenario, the person/group being attacked by the person in the position of public trust is, in fact, corrupt. I’ve no problem there.

    My gripe is when the person/group being attacked is innocent. I thought that was obvious, but I see now that it wasn’t. Thank you for showing me that I could be more clear.

  • Jason Brad Berry

    Regardless of your innocence, you are a public figure as defined by NYT v. Sullivan. You’ve “thrust yourself into the vortex of public opinion”. If you were a private figure it would be another matter altogether. You do not have the same right to privacy as other individuals…believe it or not. Nor do I. Both of us meet the definition of a “public figure” Every journalist meets that definition. We operate on a different playing field than private individuals.

    But we’re discussing two separate issues here. You’re innocence has nothing to do with the right for Justice Department officials, or any government official for that matter, to comment anonymously on online public forums. Personally I think those standards need to be defined within the respective organizations and even then, there should be instances that are brought before the court, i.e., Edward Snowden.

    I’m not arguing your innocence in the comment that were made against you. I’m stating that those comments can be made against you, as they can me, and as public figures it’s our burden to set the record straight.

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    Jason Brad Berry,

    When I denounce people in a position of public trust, disguising their identities, pretending to be disinterested observers, and attacking innocent well-meaning people/groups, I am not worried about myself.

    I’m like you. Attacks don’t frighten me. But most innocent good (and rational) people could be given great pause by vicious online attacks like I described. The citizen-at-large could be frightened away from good civic work by such online attacks. You and I are different in that we aren’t scared off by such activity.

    I speak for those who are good and innocent, but not as strong as you and I.

    Sandy Rosenthal

  • Jason Brad Berry

    There is no such thing as an “innocent, well-meaning group”. You could be the advocacy group for “don’t kill puppies”, but on some level there will be a counter-argument.

    My point is about defending anonymity. It should be defended….in respect to the 1st amendment and the 4th Estate…at every cost.

    Those who make themselves public, who stand for something publicly, always have the higher ground. If an allegation is made by an anonymous source against a public figure, the public figure has the bully pulpit to set the record straight.

    If an anonymous source is attacking a PRIVATE individual…that’s another matter altogether but there are roadblocks within our legal system that are designed to deal with that. Our legal system isn’t perfect but online forums have accelerated at a rate that requires the court to play catch up.

    I’m not making an argument for the “good and innocent”. I’m making an argument for anonymity in regards to the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate.

    I’ve already told you that I have the utmost respect for your advocacy and courage in our community…I hope you understand I’m not questing your integrity. I think you are a hero, in the truest sense.

    But I disagree with your perspective on anonymity….I believe anonymity must not only be allowed, it must be protected under the First Amendment.

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    This is refreshing. A rollicking discussion about the issue, not the people having the discussion.

    This is the wild wild west. Online anonymity. Who can do it? Who can’t? What’s protected? What’s not? But yes, there are people/groups in this country, doing good civic work, who are being targeted by big business or big government and being shut down by the activity that I described.

    I consider it reprehensible. And if anyone were to offer a debate on the subject, and if you were on the panel, and I could have public debate with you, I would accept.

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    Something to think about. At what precise moment does a private individual become a public figure?

  • nickelndime

    A PRIVATE individual becomes a PUBLIC figure when the individual (and/or individual’s immediate family) receives and or benefits from the expenditure of public funds (payroll, business decisions…) directly or indirectly. For example, Leslie & Scott Jacobs (#64(contributed $213,300.00 to Jindal’s campaign). Leslie is the sister of Stephen Rosenthal, Sandy’s husband. Stephen and Sandy Rosenthal (#170) contributed $117,045.00 to Jindal’s campaign. Stephen Rosenthal is on the Board of Directors for FirstLine Schools which runs a number of State-RSD charter schools. Mr. Rosenthal is also on the Board of Directors for KIPP, which also runs a number of State-RSD charter schools. Jay Altman (longtime friend of Stephen Rosenthal) is the CEO of a nonprofit which runs a couple of State-RSD charter schools, and he has had a 6-figure salary, at least since 2009 when a T-P reporter posted the salaries. THAT’S THE MOMENT!

  • Jason Brad Berry

    The moment they’re sued for defamation. NYT v. Sullivan defines it.

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    When I denounce people in a position of public trust, disguising their identities, pretending to be disinterested observers, and attacking innocent well-meaning people/groups, I am not worried about myself. Attacks don’t frighten me. But most innocent good (and rational) people could be given great pause by vicious online attacks like I described. The citizen-at-large just beginning to do good civic work could easily be scared off by such activity.

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    I have to be 100% honest. Vicious online attacks do scare me. But they don’t STOP me. They don’t prevent me from doing my work. Most people, however, could be given pause after being the recipient of online abuse.

  • Sandy Rosenthal

    I need to be 100% honest. Vicious online attacks do frighten me. Of course they do! But they don’t stop me from doing my civic work.

  • Jason Brad Berry

    Actually I should have said the moment they sue the defamatory party, the first hurdle that must be determined is whether or not the alleged defamed party is a public or private figure. A public figure is defined as someone who has “thrust themselves into the vortex of public opinion”.

  • nickelndime

    This particular response to Jason Brad Berry concerns me: “I speak for those who are good and innocent, but not as strong as you and I. Sandy Rosenthal” No one – and I do mean, no one has the right to presume that s/he is stronger, good, or more innocent than any other individual. What happened to you, Girl?!