Bad Ideas, Blog Wars, Blogging, Defamation, Federal Government, Free Speech, New Orleans, Rank Stupidity, Technology, U.S. Attorneys Offices

When Anonymous Commenting Goes Wronger

FIRST! Assistant United States Attorney.

First amongst weird creation myths is that of the Mbombo god, who is said to have vomited up pretty much all of our world. Similarly, the story of how this website has been… thrown up is worthy of retelling. At its essence, it goes like this: A boy blogs about very sober legal issues in an incredibly earnest way and then the governor of New Jersey tells him to start Above the Law, The End. I may have missed some crucial details and got others flat-out wrong, but I think the kernel of truth is still in there somewhere.

At any rate, that boy was working for the United States Attorney’s office in Newark at the time. Doing anything on the internet, even if it was super-serious and incredibly sincere, could be considered controversial because of the position. The lawyers tasked with working in such a high-profile prosecutorial role must be seen as impartial, lest the cases they take on get tainted by their online presence.

Which is what makes it all the more surprising that history is repeating itself down in New Orleans, where two assistant United States attorneys have become embroiled in scandal after being caught commenting on not just the law in general (like our own dear leader), but the specific cases that came through their office.

It’s almost as if the New Orleans U.S. Attorney’s office is trying to outdo David Lat in some way. Which, I mean, trick please…

Jim Letten

The federal prosecutor down in New Orleans is a man named Jim Letten. So far, he hasn’t been accused of anything other than having a very loose office internet policy. It all began last March, when one of the investigative targets of Letten’s office filed a defamation suit against an online commenter on the website, alleging that the commenter was an assistant U.S. attorney working under Letten.

Sure enough, the assistant USA admitted that he was writing disparaging comments about the man, landfill owner named Fred Heebe, and promptly resigned. We covered the ridiculousness here. Rank stupidity of the highest order, but understandable that it would happen once. The assistant, Sal Perricone, resigned though, so thank god for that. Now the office could go back to putting the bad guys away and not have to worry about idiotic assistants swimming in the polluted waters that are online newspaper comment sections. Except…

Well, let’s allow the New York Times to take it from here:

[Jim Letten] insisted that Mr. Perricone had been acting alone, telling a federal judge in June that he and his first assistant, Jan Mann, “did not have knowledge of, nor did we authorize, nor did we procure or have any knowledge” of Mr. Perricone’s commenting. “That is gospel truth,” he added.

And it seemed that way, until this month. On Nov. 2, Mr. Heebe filed another defamation suit, this one against Ms. Mann, accusing her of commenting under the alias “eweman,” possibly even in concert with Mr. Perricone. (“Don’t you ever wonder how they get rich in public office?” read a comment referring to New Orleans’s congressman. “Not possible unless stealing.”)

Two! There are two assistant USAs down in New Orleans who are stupid and, apparently, bored enough to comment online about cases that their office is handling. And consider what they risked their jobs and their office’s reputation on — lines like “Not possible unless stealing.” The kind of braindead drive-by thought that adds nothing to the public’s understanding of… well, anything. Politicians steal, y’all. This was the jewel that Jan Mann had to give to the world.

Mann has been demoted for now, but it’s difficult to believe that she will survive the current Justice Department investigation into her online behavior. It’s difficult to understand just what would provoke a prosecutor to do something like this. Was it the praise of an online audience of numbskulls that drew the two attorneys to the comments section? Perhaps it was just the chance to vent after days of frustration in an office that otherwise enforced a sort of omertà about the cases they dealt with? Or maybe, just maybe, it was the siren song of the pedant that called out to them? These great legal minds sought to set the record straight and educate the rabble on the issues of the day. It was public service, y’see.

Alas, it was nothing of the sort. It was two professionals putting their office and the particular kind of justice that office seeks at risk. And so now one, and surely both, lose their jobs and are faced with the same question that confronted a young David Lat so many years ago:

Are those peep-toes delicious or what?

In New Orleans, Comments by Assistants Imperil Job of Federal Prosecutor [New York Times]

Earlier: When Anonymous Commenting Goes Real Wrong

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