Unprobed mysteries still lurk at the heart of the Danziger online comment scandal

Judge Kurt Engelhardt was duly appalled by the online commenting; his order suggests that more user names remain to be explored.

Judge Kurt Engelhardt was duly appalled by the online comments; his order suggests that more user names remain to be explored.

In his order vacating the conviction police officers in connection with the deadly Danziger Bridge shootings after Hurricane Katrina, U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt devoted over 20 pages to analysis of obscure NOLA.com comments made by users with names like “ac123” and “crawdaddy.” The section, titled “An On-line 21st Century ‘Carnival Atmosphere,’” may seem like a long, quote-laden interlude in an otherwise stunning order. However, I think it is crucially instructive.

Engelhardt’s forensic analysis of comments was prompted by his discovery that Karla Dobinski, an attorney in the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice, made anonymous comments on NOLA.com during the Danziger trial. (She is now under internal review.) He began the analysis  after longtime U.S. Attorney Jim Letten resigned, following the revelation that his top lieutenants — First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann and federal prosecutor Sal Perricone — authored pseudonymous online comments.

Engelhardt, who was already disappointed that he did not receive a “clear, unequivocal and all-inclusive reliable report” from the attorneys assigned to investigate the comment scandal, went on high alert after learning Dobinski was involved. On his own, he dug into usernames that Dobinski referred to in her comments, and dissected Perricone’s rants on Danziger trial news stories.

Suggestive but inconclusive, the judge’s linguistic analysis is an important reminder that pivotal questions — questions that deeply troubled Engelhardt — still abound. How many attorneys were involved in this scandal? What did they write? Did they act in concert?

The few answers we’ve gotten thus far only seem to raise more questions. Perricone was fond of writing, “The truth will emerge.” But will it?

In a previous post I summarized my central findings and speculations about this story, and named several “usernames of interest.” I believe these usernames remain interesting and would encourage you to review the list, as well as those specified by Engelhardt.

Some of the research in my previous columns apparently informed Engelhardt’s investigation. On page 24 of the order, Engelhardt inquired whether Perricone had been asked about the “martyfed” username, and whether Mann had used the alias “bowatch.” Through their counsel, Perricone and Mann denied posting comments under those names (page 28 of the order). My previous research showed, in my opinion, numerous links between those usernames and Perricone and Mann’s admitted aliases.

Nonetheless, government attorneys tasked with investigating the scandal did learn the following:

Perricone used (but could not recall) yet another user ID on the Nola.com website, but could not confirm the specific name. Likewise, Mann admitted that she too may have posted a few comments under a different user ID than “ewe man” approximately one year before her first post as “ewe man.”

So, going by Perricone and Mann’s testimony, at least two more usernames are still out there, beyond Mann’s “eweman” alias and the usernames to which Perricone has already admitted: “campstblue,” “dramatis personae,” “legacyusa,” “Henry L. Mencken1951.”

Without encouraging a speculative crowd-sourced free-for-all, I’d contend that the NOLA.com comments are vital and available clues to finding out more about this scandal. Engelhardt’s judicial inquiry into the online comments took root in  usernames and the judge’s abiding lack of confidence in the government’s investigation of its own prosecutors. His inquiries uncovered more disturbing revelations and, I believe, serve as an example for how we can begin to appreciate the full dimensions of this mysterious scandal.

Clearly for the law, the media and any average Joe fascinated by this extraordinary turn of events, the comment scandal will repay further sleuthing. Much remains to be sorted out — and should be.

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