Opinion
 

Online comment scandal likely to widen as more defendants invoke it in court

The claim that feds posting inappropriate online comments were "lone wolves" is not likely to survive further revelations.

The claim that feds posting inappropriate online comments were "lone wolves" is not likely to survive further revelations.

“This is not part of any official work of the office to have a propaganda campaign or something like that.” So said former First Assistant United States Attorney Jan Mann, under oath in 2012.

Excerpted from U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt’s order vacating the Danziger Bridge convictions, Mann’s denial fails to reassure. If online propaganda wasn’t “official” policy in the local U.S. Attorney’s Office, perhaps it was an unofficial understanding, done on the sly, with a minimum of documentation.

No one thinks that then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten sent out memos coaching staff on pseudonymous comment-board tactics. If coordinated online mischief took place, upper management in that office surely knew better than to document it. Much better to use winks and nods, and perhaps a few guffaws and high fives behind closed doors. Even if there was a slip, and an email or two revealed too much about an unofficial campaign, it wouldn’t matter because email data prior to 2012 is unrecoverable.

We’re supposed to believe federal prosecutors who commented online, such as Mann and Sal Perricone, were lone wolves. They claim they had no idea others in their office were ranting about federal cases and targets on the NOLA.com comment boards. But two other feds were later exposed as commenters: an as yet unnamed FBI agent, and Karla Dobinski, a senior civil rights lawyer in the Department of Justice in Washington. Presumably they too have claimed they acted alone, oblivious to each other’s antics.

Hmm. Did you ever see that National Geographic special about a pack of wolves who congregate by day, but go out on separate hunts at night — unaware they are stalking the same prey? Nah, I didn’t see that episode either. But that’s essentially what the federal white hats would have us believe — that Commentgate is a matter of lone wolves, and any apparent cooperation between them is mere coincidence.

The current state of Commentgate is similarly untenable: Enormous stakes (verdicts have been vacated), combined with an implausible storyline and precious little new information. Something’s got to give and — mark my words — it soon will.

In my view, we’re about one disclosure away from all hell breaking loose, and totally rethinking this embarrassment. Here’s why: A growing number of toilers on the federal bench want to get to the bottom of this scandal, if only so Commentgate’s impact can be assessed here and now rather than during embarrassing retrial of cases determined to have been queered by the online chatter.

This column has already praised U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt for the diligent stone-turning that broadened our understanding of Commentgate’s scope. Now it seems other judges are following his lead. Two days ago U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle allowed lawyers representing former Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt another two months to explain how “Commentgate” misconduct tainted her conviction for aiding a racketeering enterprise.  You can bet they’re combing the comment archives at Nola.com.

They’ll also monitor legal developments regarding corruption charges against former New Orleans Affordable Homeownership official Stacey Jackson. Last month, Jackson’s lawyers made some remarkably weak arguments for a subpoena to compel NOLA.com to reveal identities of commenters suspected of being federal prosecutors.

Jackson’s lawyers said the commenters were prolific and used “cop jargon lingo.” Lawyers for NOLA.com claimed those identifiers were too broad. But, remarkably, as some had predicted, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson granted a (modified) subpoena for username records and indicated the commenters could be “management-level Justice Department prosecutors or law enforcement officers.”

The usernames in the crosshairs are “aircheck” and “jammer1954.” Jason Berry at the American Zombie blog has raised the possibility that “aircheck” might be a fed, perhaps Letten himself. Defense lawyer Arthur “Buddy” Lemann — who seeks a “Commentgate” bailout for Aaron Broussard, the disgraced (a guilty plea on corruption charges) former president of Jefferson Parish — filed a motion last month calling it “highly likely that these commenters [“aircheck” and “jammer1957”] will be revealed to be members of the government.”

If it plays out this way, and these commenters are added to the list of feds making online mischief, then the lone-wolf analysis will be defunct.

The claim that feds are liable to be prolific commenters may be weak as a legal argument, but that doesn’t mean it is inaccurate. Federal Prosecutor Sal Perricone wrote many hundreds of posts going back to at least 2008. A web archive search reveals that “aircheck” might have written 1,621 comments (more than triple the number attributed to “aircheck” in recent legal filings).

These comments by “aircheck” stretch back to at least 2008, and are often present on threads below news stories about federal targets and trials. “Aircheck’s” views align with other outed federal prosecutors writing under aliases, and appear on the same threads.

It doesn’t stop there. My research shows connections between “aircheck” and commenter “urantia” — in my opinion, an alter ego. An archive of the profile page for “urantia” shows another thousand or more comments! Tellingly, “aircheck” and “urantia” appear on some of the same threads and push the same agenda.

If “aircheck” and “urantia are one and the same commenter, that’s a commonality shared with Perricone, who also posted comments under multiple usernames. It’s a form of online deception known as sockpuppetry — and it’s a big red flag. The ploy is favored by commenters pushing an agenda and not content to merely howl their opinions in the comment-board wilderness. Most disturbingly, this online misconduct may be symptomatic of worse shenanigans.

Granted, the online comments don’t mean that Ray Nagin, or the Danziger defendants or Renee Gill Pratt are suddenly innocent. But they raise the question of whether those figures — and numerous others — received a fair trial. If the Danziger defendants were right that the government waged “a secret public relations campaign” on the internet— in other words, if the “lone wolves” did in fact operate as a pack — we’ll have to steel ourselves for a flurry of (grueling) retrials and re-sentencings.

One of the many ironies in this miasma is that government prosecutors who are supposed to be servants of the law now sound like the know-nothing defendants they excoriated online. I’m beyond tired of it, and perhaps the federal judges in the local district suffer similar frustrations.

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  • Jason Brad Berry

    Verum est silentium