Federal authorities who were ordered to conduct a deeper investigation into an online commenting scandal in former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office have issued a subpoena to The Times-Picayune’s parent company, asking it to provide, among other items, information about 11 commenters on NOLA.com. The company’s lawyers have objected to providing the information thus far, instead asking the feds to demonstrate they have a basis for seeking the information.
The Justice Department is seeking the information pursuant to a federal law called the Inspector General Act, and the NOLA Media Group — which includes the newspaper and the website — is also questioning whether the department has no authority to request the information under that law.
The federal subpoena seeks a listing of all comments made by the 11 commenters since Jan. 1, 2007, and “any IP addresses associated with” the users who made the comments. It also asks for similar information about the comments left under pseudonyms that former federal prosecutors Jan Mann and Sal Perricone have since acknowledged using.
It’s not clear how or why federal authorities zeroed in on the 11 additional commenters named in the subpoena. A review of their comments — which are available to anyone with access to the Internet — shows that they take on a wide variety of topics, from football to politics. Only a handful seem to be focused on affairs at the federal courthouse.
One of them, “lawdawg1963,” addressed the commenting scandal head-on in a post last week: “Here are some of the salient issues: Did Jan Mann do any of these posts on government computers and/or on government time?” he or she wrote in part. “Did her posts go beyond public knowledge? Were any of her posts false? And probably most important of all, did she lie to the judges and/or investigators?”
For three of the handles, no comments could be located by The Times-Picayune.
Since this story was initially published Monday evening, two of the commenters have weighed in to say that they have no affiliation with the U.S. Attoney’s office.
“Alafbi is not an AUSA [Assistant U.S. Attorney]!” commenter “alafbi” wrote Tuesday morning. “Good to see that an active investigation is ongoing. Shouldn’t be hard for them to figure out the aliases. Just wonder if they are trying to identify other posters from the USAs office or trying to intimidate the commenters.”
“Copperhead54″ also weighed in, saying he or she is the same person who used to comment extensively as “copperhead504″ — one of the aliases the feds have inquired about. “Copperhead54″ wrote that he or she is a friend of Letten’s, but one without any professional affiliation with the U.S. Attorney’s office.
The new inquiry comes amid a scandal that began in March with the unmasking of longtime prosecutor Perricone as the prolific online commenter “Henry L. Mencken1951,” and continued this fall with the revelation that Mann, Letten’s longtime first assistant, had also commented frequently under an alias at NOLA.com.
The imbroglio eventually ended the prosecutorial careers of Mann and Perricone as well as Letten, who resigned under pressure, and Jim Mann, Jan Mann’s husband, also a ranking prosecutor in the office and part of Letten’s inner circle.
In the wake of Perricone’s exposure, in March, Jan Mann conducted an internal inquiry at the office, and both she and Letten sought to assure U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt that the problem was limited to Perricone.
But Engelhardt was incensed by Mann’s subsequent admission — in response to a civil lawsuit filed by landfill owner and federal target Fred Heebe — that she, too, had been a frequent anonymous poster at NOLA.com.
In a tart Nov. 26 order, Engelhardt “strongly” urged the Justice Department to reinvestigate allegations of leaks from Letten’s office and to search again for emails that might shed light on the commenting scandal.
Within days, the department had appointed John Horn, first assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, to conduct a special inquiry. While the subpoena for the 11 commenters’ information is returnable to Teresa Gulotta-Powers, FBI special agent in charge of the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, it was issued in connection with the inquiry overseen by Horn.
Horn has also sought to question reporters from The Times-Picayune and the Associated Press in connection with alleged leaks. Engelhardt presides over the Danziger Bridge case, and it’s in that role that he has requested the deeper inquiry into the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The federal subpoena to The Times-Picayune does not say why the 11 commenters it names are of interest to the federal government.
Heebe’s legal team, which exposed both Perricone and Mann, has spent months analyzing comments left at NOLA.com — some of them with the help of James Fitzgerald, a former FBI profiler and forensic linguist. The team includes Billy Gibbens, a former federal prosecutor who also represents former NOPD Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, one of five officers convicted at trial in the Danziger Bridge case.
Contacted by The Times-Picayune about the subpoena, Gibbens declined to talk about whether he recognized any of the aliases sought
At a closed hearing on Oct. 10, Perricone was questioned under oath by lawyers in the Danziger case as well as Engelhardt about a series of handles used by NOLA.com commenters, according to a portion of the testimony quoted in Engelhardt’s Nov. 26 order. (The hearing was transcribed, but the transcripts are sealed.)
In the portion quoted, Perricone was asked about three handles — “TANFOGLIO51,” “Jeff Corrupt” and “Toomuchcorruption.” He denied knowing anything about them. Moreover, none of those handles is among the 11 listed in the federal subpoena. (“TANGFOGLIO51″ has also weighed in in the comment stream below since the initial publication of this story.)
The transcript does not say which of the lawyers was questioning Perricone, or why the lawyer thought that Perricone might know something about those aliases. In the same line of questioning, Perricone was asked about “eweman” – which, it later emerged, was Jan Mann’s handle — and he said he did not know its owner.
The aliases that the federal government wants to know more about are as follows: “FormerNOPDman,” “mardigraswizard,” “lawdawg1963,” “nolacat60,” “FSU1982,” “alafbi,” thewizard,” “copperhead504,” “isthisthingon?,” “Andjusticeforall,” and “uckzerto.”
The Times-Picayune could find no evidence that “nolacat60″ has ever been a username on the site. Two of the handles — “thewizard” and “isthisthingon” — exist on the site, but neither one has posted any comments, according to a search of NOLA.com.
That leaves eight other aliases about which federal investigators are seeking information.
Those aliases show a range of activity, and some appear to have been defunct for some time. For instance, the commenter “FormerNOPDman” last posted at NOLA.com on Dec. 9, 2010, according to a review of the site, and the person with that handle posted a grand total of six comments. Several of those comments make reference to the trial of five NOPD officers in the death and subsequent incineration of Henry Glover, and the commenter claims to be an “active police officer.”
The most active commenter in the group is “copperhead504,” who posted a total of 2,506 comments, according to a review of NOLA.com. However, “copperhead504″ hasn’t posted in six months, a search of the website shows. “Copperhead” seemed to seldom opine on federal probes, though six months ago, he posted a spirited defense of the investigation into former Mayor Ray Nagin.
Some of the commenters are often quite critical of Letten’s office, such as “alafbi,” wholast week wrote that “One of the major problems with Letten’s office was to get what ‘they want to hear’ through any means necessary.”
Only four of the commenters, including “alafbi” and “copperhead504,” have posted any remarks since Perricone was unmasked in March. However, none of them appears to have abruptly stopped commenting around that time, as did Mann under her “eweman” alias.
A couple of the aliases appear to have been retired in late 2010, for instance.