A digital cluster bomb of sorts was dropped on the Hale Boggs federal office building on Poydras Street more than a year ago, and some of its bomblets are still going off. A big one blew up just this week.
On March 12, 2012, businessman Fred Heebe filed a defamation suit that made what seemed like a wild charge at the time: Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone was making anonymous comments on an online news site about cases being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The allegations turned out to be true, and later the story widened when Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann also admitted to making online comments on the same site, NOLA.com.
Both Perricone and Mann lost their jobs, but the spiral of doom kept widening. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten left his job and the federal investigation that had focused on Heebe was brought to an end.
This week, a major conviction Letten’s office had achieved was overturned by U.S. Judge Kurt Engelhardt. On Tuesday, Engelhardt threw out the 2011 convictions of five New Orleans Police Department officers found guilty in the deaths of two people on the Danziger Bridge in the days after Hurricane Katrina and in the ensuing cover-up.
The convictions were a major civil-rights victory, now erased.
But perhaps as shocking as the news of the dismissals were two new revelations. One is that Letten may have known what Mann and Perricone had been up to. The other is that still another member of the Justice Department — this one in Washington, D.C. — had been commenting online too.
Engelhardt said consideration of the officers’ motion for a retrial “has taken the Court on a legal odyssey unlike any other.”
“There is no case similar, in nature or in scope, to this bizarre and appalling turn of events,” he wrote.
He said watching more and more information about the prosecutors’ behavior come out has been like “slowly peeling layers of an onion.”
Computers and the Internet have brought us into a new age, with most of us still unmindful of all of its ramifications. Many online news sites allow for the kind of anonymous comments that Mann and Perricone engaged in.
But sometimes the anonymous posters are unmasked, and we’ve seen what kind of complications may be attendant to the unmasking.
In the case of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans, it’s meant two major cases have blown up and three people have lost their jobs.
Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, told the New York Times after Engelhardt’s decision that the risks of using social media are a recurrent discussion topic in legal circles, and the New Orleans case is a cautionary tale.
“This is the most dramatic danger sign that we’ve had come along,” he said.
Engelhardt, meanwhile, said the government’s actions leave “scar tissue that will long evidence infidelity to the principles of ethics, professionalism, and basic fairness and common sense necessary to every criminal prosecution.”
Pretty strong words, in a 129-page ruling that’s packed with strong words.
So, after this latest detonation on Poydras Street, everyone is probably wondering: Is it over yet? Have we finally seen the last big surprise in the series of events set in motion with Heebe’s complaint against Perricone back in March 2012?
Prudence, and history, would indicate that anybody who claims to know the answer to that would be foolish to say so in public.
Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column, he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@ theadvocate.com.