Free expression or feds’ folly: Comment-gate likely to widen

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New evidence suggests the online comment scandal involving the local U.S. Attorney’s Office is more widespread than thought.

First, let’s review some territory covered previously:

In March assistant federal prosecutor Sal Perricone resigned after a lawsuit filed by landfill magnate (and federal target) Fred Heebe linked him to comments written by “HenryL.Mencken1951” at NOLA.com. Perricone eventually admitted to writing hundreds of comments over the years under three additional handles, “legacyusa,” “campstblue,” and “dramatis personae.” My investigations linked Perricone to a fifth NOLA.com handle, “martyfed,” and implied that recent comments made by “jack” sounded a lot like Perricone as well.

Today, Doug Handshoe, the author of the Slabbed blog, confirmed my findings about “jack.” (Boldface is mine):

But there is more because of Mark Moseley’s recent Lens column on internet commenter Jack, whom most everyone that is paying attention has deduced is Sal Perricone myself included.  It is no secret I want to visit with Sal and to the extent he honors his ethical obligations as an attorney, he has the same rights as everyone else to express his opinions as he sees fit.

Doug’s right. Ethical obligations are the core concern here, as Gambit columnist Clancy Dubos noted at the outset of the scandal, when he wrote:

Attorneys have a legal duty to refrain from making “extrajudicial comments” about ongoing cases. Prosecutors have an added duty not to make comments “that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused.” Perricone did both with alacrity. 

Handshoe goes on to say the feds—presumably the ones brought in to investigate comment-gate—are looking at his blog. He adds that, as the administrator of an investigative blog, he’d like to highlight certain comments at Slabbed written by Perricone. Handshoe writes:

Jack, post employment of course, had other handles that he used on Slabbed and what the guy had to say, I thought was highly enlightening.  So I have a conundrum, do I out Jack’s other alias to make a very important, albeit self-serving point or do I leave it be and file it under the sanctity of commenting on Slabbed.  I mean Perricone was way on the inside of the investigation back in the day so his observations about certain matters tangential to it must be accorded great weight.

That last link subtly outs Perricone as Slabbed commenter “ccjames,” who wrote “the truth is beginning to emerge”—a favorite catch-phrase of Perricone’s. One wonders how many other handles Perricone used, how many other blogs he commented on, and whether his free expressions revealed information that betrayed his duties as a servant of the law. Also: How the blazes did Perricone find the time to write it all?

Perricone has claimed that the hundreds of comments he wrote under what appears to be at least seven different usernames were “his secret.” While I doubt that’s true, one thing is for sure: He was not alone. In November, Heebe linked First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann to the “eweman” username. Heebe’s lawsuit claimed a “unique typographical error” was common to writing by both Mann and “eweman”: “superfluous spacing before punctuation.”  Also, “eweman” commented on many of the same threads as Perricone.

Heebe’s disclosure about Mann, and her apparent false statements about her comment-writing, led to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s retirement in December. Mann retired at the end of the year, as did her husband, Jim Mann, another assistant federal prosecutor.

Many have wondered if Jan Mann signed on under usernames other than “eweman.” I wondered the same thing after reading old NOLA.com comments by “bowatch,” a user who seems to share Mann’s penchant for “superfluous spacing before punctuation.”

For example, note the lead sentences in the first, fourth and seventh paragraphs in this “bowatch” comment on a 2009 letter to the editor penned by Sen. David Vitter concerning Letten’s reappointment. See how the extra spaces precede some of the commas? In addition to the punctuation errors that link Mann’s “eweman” alias to “bowatch,” there’s her recurring claim that former U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan slept on the job.

In this January 2012 posting “eweman” wrote: “Eddie Jordan is as pathetic as Edwards is evil . Luckily Jordan was sensible enough to keep his mouth shut for the entire trial. Even EWE said Jordan slept the whole trial.

Compare that to “bowatch’s” 2009 comment:Jordan was a credit taker not a job doer and YES he did literally FALL ASLEEP while in charge. Jordan was finally exposed as the incompetent that he was when he became DA, which he was able to keep somewhat concealed ( not from the USA staff though) while he was USA because he was surrounded by sharp prosecutors like Letten at the USA’s office.”

”Bowatch” posted a second, rather scathing, comment in the same thread, in response to a user named “Gulfaaron” who dared to suggest that Letten be replaced with federal prosecutor Maurice Landrieu. Then, guess who jumps into the thread to carry on “bowatch’s” attacks? None other than Perricone writing as “martyfed”!

Are we supposed to believe that nobody in the U.S. Attorney’s Office knew about these episodes? Are we supposed to believe this was merely an example of ships passing in the fog—highly trained federal investigators simply exercising their “freedom of speech” in comments on the same threads, about the same job-related topics, often written during weekday working hours? Are we supposed to believe this practice continued in mutual ignorance for years until one of their federal targets was exposed?

I don’t think so. That defense strains credulity, and deepens my laugh lines.

Much more likely, I’d contend, there was widespread awareness of online chicanery in the federal prosecutor’s office. Indeed, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Manger testified that he had notified supervisors (but not top brass) about his suspicions that Perricone was commenting under the “legacyusa” handle.

So it’s no great leap to suppose that there were other online commenters in the U.S. Attorney’s Office besides Mann and Perricone. Federal investigators recently requested more information from Nola Media Group about comments made by 11 NOLA.com users. One of the usernames listed in that story is “FSU1982.” According to the NOLA.com archives, “FSU1982” ceased writing at the site 11 months ago, a couple of months before the news about Perricone broke. The archives also show that the first comment from “FSU1982” was made in response to a user named “painman11” in a thread to a story about then-St. John the Baptist Parish President Bill Hubbard. The exchange goes as follows:

painman11
Southern Louisiana is becoming “rat central.” Everybody is unloading on each other, that’s good, let them all go to jail!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009, 9:18:38 AM

FSU1982
Painman11, you are right, there is no honor among thieves!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009, 10:51:06 AM

Both “painman11” and especially “FSU1982” are users of interest, in my book. (A quick scan of the topical focus in FSU1982’s archives should make anyone suspicious.) Their comments sound like they come from insiders, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s soon revealed that the authors of these handles also worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. As an aside, I’d point to this absolutely fascinating comment thread about investigations into the shootings on Danziger Bridge. Notice the interaction between “painman11” and “legacyusa,” where they talk about the NOPD.

As more usernames (and users) are exposed on news sites and blogs, I think we’ll find scores of inappropriate, unprofessional and unethical comments made about investigations and trials, from insiders in the justice system. If this goes beyond the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as some have suspected, and into the judiciary, the potential ramifications are mind-boggling. As Perricone likes to say, “the truth shall emerge.”

And I dare say it won’t be pretty.

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