Ouroboros: the beast that devours its tail. Wikipedia

To “Jack,” an open letter:

Many thanks for your comment on my Dec. 11 column about U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s resignation. Your overarching message seems to be that Letten’s disgraced former assistant Sal Perricone really did nothing wrong in commenting publicly on federal cases the office was handling.

Informed feedback from readers is always welcome. I tried replying to the email address associated with your username, Jack, but it was a dud. On a wild whim, I even tried an alternate address—that of Sal Perricone, himself. I thought he might have a forwarding address for you. No reply.  Bummer.

I’m hopeful you’ll see this post, because I have so many follow-up questions.

First, I agree with you about the First Amendment. Let a million thought-flowers bloom—even if some aren’t so pretty. I’d wager Perricone, who commented online as HenryL.Mencken1951, would agree.

And look! A user named Jack also wrote a comment about free speech at the Slabbed blog, whose publisher Doug Handshoe recently won an “historic SPEECH Act” victory in court.  That comment appeared on Dec. 17, just as yours did at The Lens. It appears that you get around, doesn’t it, Jack?

Those internet sites are fun, freewheeling places. Or at least they used to be. Did you see what Jason Berry at the American Zombie wrote? Here’s a bit of it:

I said back in March when this [U.S. Attorney] commenting scandal first broke … I smell a rat.  I am now choking on that stench.  I’m not even suggesting that the stench is coming from the T-P newsroom, especially considering the disdain the T-P staff had for their online presence before the reboot, but I am suggesting there is something rotten in the brave Newhouse world.

Whatever the source of the smell, longtime nola.com commenters tell me that “the rumor that nola.com gave up commenters’ info to Heebe has become endemic.” I’ve disagreed with Berry about whether River Birch Landfill owner Fred Heebe needed inside information to identify the nola.com handles of federal prosecutors like Perricone. (He didn’t. Perricone’s style stands out like Mt. McKinley in a cornfield.) But that’s an argument about logical form rather than a dispute over Berry’s conclusions. The larger issues involve identity, anonymity, free speech, and, yes,  journalism. If the upheaval in the U.S. Attorney’s office was the top local political story of 2012, the emerging nola.com commenter story—disclosures about who said what and when—might well become the talk of 2013.

Hey, Jack, what did you make of Berry’s thoughts about using wi-fi internet provider addresses and security cameras to identify “users of interest” in, say, hotel lobbies? A pretty Orwellian scenario, to be sure. Do you think Berry, a documentary filmmaker, pulled that example out of the blue? Either way, the nexus of virtual surveillance (of internet providers) and actual physical surveillance (via security cams) is a rather chilling intersection. But I’m sure it will all be integrated soon, for our “convenience” and “safety.”

Jack, in your Lens comment you defended Perricone and disparaged “innuendo-laden” reporting about the U.S. Attorney’s office. But you also wrote something—it might even be called an innuendo—I haven’t seen asserted anywhere else:

Yes, I have sources too—and very good ones. Perricone did the right thing from day one. He fessed up and didn’t dissemble one bit. Letten is a different story and his actions deserve scrutiny, which probably did him in.

Well, I’ll try to help out with your request for more scrutiny of Letten, but I’m afraid I’ll look a bit obsessed about the topic. Then you wrote:

If anyone lied, it had to be the coverup and not the initial revelation back in March. What I hear, Letten protect (sic) a few people, while disgarding (sic) others. DOJ couldn’t stomach that and that is why he was removed.

Jack, are you saying that Perricone resigned, even though he believed he had done nothing wrong, while colleagues like former First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann (among others) stayed silent and engaged in a coverup? The popular (and still sympathetic) interpretation of events is that former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten made false statements because he was misled by his aides. But you seem to be claiming Letten dissembled too, and participated in the cover up to protect favored members of his staff—i.e. Jan Mann—who didn’t “fess up” and quickly resign, like the noble Perricone. (Drats. And here I was ready to push for Letten to become the next NOPD superintendent. However lucrative his new law firm job is, you know it doesn’t motivate him like public service.)

To me, it seems as if Perricone delights in innuendo. In our next conversation, Jack, we’ll have to review statements Perricone made about the Landrieu family, outside of nola.com. Those were richly suggestive in all kinds of ways. Perhaps Perricone abides by the wisdom of former New Orleans Mayor Vic Schiro who, in advance of Hurricane Betsy, said, “Don’t believe any false rumors unless you hear them from me.”

For example, nola.com published a story about Perricone on Dec. 19—only two days after “jack” commented at The Lens, Slabbed and perhaps other blogs. The piece, written by Gordon Russell of the Nola Media Group, said that Perricone denied authoring the legal brief that Heebe used to identify him. He acted like writing style doesn’t exist, and that signature Latinate usages, such as “dubiety,” weren’t literary thumbprints. Ludicrous!

But here’s the innuendo part. Surely Perricone enjoyed Russell’s decision to publish this quote:

[Perricone’s] conclusion: “… it appears that someone employed some other ratiocinations to determine who scribed as Mencken 1951. I wonder who … “

Again, I’ve read a metric ton of Perricone’s posts in recent months, and could recognize one anywhere. That’s how an amateur investigator—me—concluded that Perricone wrote as nola.com user “martyfed,” and engaged in sockpuppetry. That doesn’t mean that there is no element of truth to the rumors, though. As Perricone might say, the “truth will emerge” this year. But I doubt it will do so in orderly fashion. As Mann herself has hinted, there might be all kinds of people involved in the criminal justice system commenting anonymously. Rumors may force leaks, and leaks may lead to disclosures, at an ever-more-furious pace. Lawsuits requesting user information will be met with countersuits in defense of privacy and speech.

You may have given thought to even more absurd scenarios—like this one, about nola.com usernames listed in a federal subpoena. There, you have a news story about commenter usernames; then the commenters listed in the news story comment on it, and the whole thing takes on a confusing Ouroboros effect when the news story about comments is updated with comments from the news story comment thread, and immediately more comments are made about the update … and on and on.

There will be backlash, too, perhaps manufactured by targets of investigative online comment threads.. (Heck, I’m surprised I haven’t yet become a target of wild… oops, too late.)  A recent Lens comment alerted me to “a new blog taking on who’s who at Slabbed. http://real-malice.blogspot.fr/ ”

Thus far, the first post at Real Malice contends that Jefferson Parish political watchdog Ann Marie Vandenweghe “takes on several anonymous personae on Slabbed, repeatedly pursuing “sock puppet” exercises to get her point across and make it appear there is greater support for Slabbed in the blog’s comments section than is truly the case, much like in the recent blogging scandal in the New Orleans U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

OK, so what’s the lone bit of proof that the blog uses to accuse Vandenweghe of juicing the (already quite vital and diverse) Slabbed comment section with artificial sockpuppetry (a la Perricone)? Innuendo from Perricone!

It’s notable that on August 28, 2011, on nola.com, commenter “Mencken1951” (then Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone) posted a comment on a story about Anne-Marie Vandenweghe’s federal civil lawsuit against Jefferson Parish: Could it be that SLABBED is the alter ego of the Plaintiff?

In his August interview with New Orleans Magazine, Perricone said he “no longer blogs or comments online.”

I’m not going to pursue a dumb idea,” Perricone says, deadpanning: “I’m not a recidivist.”

That’s a shame. Seems like Perricone had to take himself out of the online reindeer games just before things were getting most interesting. I’ll miss his “glib but venomous” online voice in the important weeks and months ahead.

Don’t you agree, Jack?

Cura ut valeas,

Mark Moseley
Lens opinion writer
aka “oyster” at Your Right Hand Thief blog

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...