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Friday, December 07, 2012

Law - "Louisiana U.S. Attorney Jim Letten resigns amid online commenting scandal in his office"

This is a bizarre story, somewhat reminiscent of the story a few years back about a judge's daughter allegedly submitting online comments to the local paper about a case her mother was trying.

Campbell Robertson of the NYT has this story, which presents a clearer explanation for a national audience - some quotes:

Beginning last spring, a series of legal motions had revealed that Mr. Letten’s senior prosecutors had been making provocative, even pugnacious comments about active criminal matters and other subjects under aliases at nola.com, the Web site of The Times-Picayune newspaper. * * *

Last month, the revelations of online misconduct reached Mr. Letten’s top assistant, Jan Mann. A federal judge, in a scathing 50-page order, broached the possibility of criminal conduct in regard to her online activities, as well as those of another senior prosecutor, Sal Perricone, who resigned in March.

The judge also revealed that another federal prosecutor had expressed suspicions about the comments to his supervisors in 2010.

The exposure of Ms. Mann, months after Mr. Letten’s avowals that Mr. Perricone had acted alone, raised doubts about the effectiveness of an internal investigation by the Justice Department. The revelations could also jeopardize hard-fought convictions — including those last year of police officers involved in post-Katrina killings on the Danziger Bridge — as well as continuing inquiries like a bribery investigation that appears to be steadily encircling C. Ray Nagin, the former mayor.

Here is the long version of the story, from the Times-Picaynne (NOLA.com), reported by Gordon Russell. Some quotes:
The news release also said that John Horn, First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, will investigate leaks and other matters in the Danziger Bridge case, a probe that U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt requested in a tartly worded Nov. 26 order.

The series of moves comes eight months into a scandal revolving around anonymous online commenting by high-ranking prosecutors in his office, including the shocking revelation that Letten's longtime First Assistant, Jan Mann, was involved.

The troubles for Letten began in March, when landfill owner Fred Heebe -- the target of a sprawling federal probe -- filed a civil lawsuit alleging that prosecutor Sal Perricone had been using an online alias to savage him and other federal targets in comments posted at NOLA.com.

Perricone, the office's senior litigation counsel and a member of Letten's inner circle, quickly admitted his sins and resigned. The matter was referred to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility for investigation, and the scandal seemed to die down.

In an interview with New Orleans magazine published in August, Perricone insisted the commenting brouhaha started and ended with him, saying no one else in the office had been aware of his activities.

But last month, the scandal reignited with a vengeance, when Heebe filed a second defamation suit, this one claiming Mann had been commenting about federal targets and judges as "eweman" on NOLA.com. Many of the comments by "eweman" were adjacent to comments made by Perricone under one of his online aliases, suggesting a coordinated campaign.

Mann soon admitted she had commented online at NOLA.com, but did not cop to a specific alias. Letten, meanwhile, announced that she was being demoted from her ranking posts of First Assistant U.S. Attorney and chief of the office's criminal division.

Mann did not step down, however, and the problems for Letten's office continued to mount. Engelhardt -- who had asked for a full investigation into leaks in the Danziger Bridge case earlier this year -- issued a stinging order in late November in which he essentially accused Mann and Perricone of untruthfulness.

In particular, the judge was upset by a letter Mann sent him in October in which she wrote: "Prior to the Perricone incident, I was not a follower of NOLA.com postings and had no real sense of what was happening there."

In his order, Engelhardt strongly urged the Justice Department to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the problems, saying Mann's earlier inquiry had been insufficient. The judge also questioned the ability of the Office of Professional Responsibility -- a subset of the Justice Department -- to get to the bottom of the matter.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 7, 2012 03:27 PM
Posted to General Law Related