Dennis Persica column for Nov. 29, 2012

The “law of unintended consequences” holds that an innovation that we think will be a good change often brings bad, and unexpected, repercussions. You can Google it on the Internet if you don’t believe me.

And the Internet, actually, is the subject of today’s column. A method to send information around the world in milliseconds is a good idea. But it also means that information that shouldn’t have been sent out to begin with can be sent around the world just as quickly.

Just ask former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who made the mistake of sending the world images of his underwear-clad crotch.

People have always done stupid things. Now, the Internet provides people a way to do stupid things even faster.

Retired Gen. David Petraeus was done in as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency because an affair with his biographer was digitally memorialized in emails. And it was emails from his lover to another woman that led to the whole deception unraveling.

In New Orleans, we’re seeing another unraveling, also brought to you by the Internet. Earlier this year, the office of U.S. Attorney Jim Letten was rocked by the revelation that one of his prosecutors, Sal Perricone, had been commenting anonymously online about cases Letten’s office was handling.

A new bombshell exploded earlier this month when it was revealed that Letten’s second in command, Jan Mann, also couldn’t resist the temptation to comment anonymously on subjects that fall under Letten’s purview. Perricone resigned; Mann was demoted.

The story ratcheted up Monday when the judge in the Danziger Bridge police misconduct case held out the slightest possibility that Mann’s and Perricone’s actions could lead to having the guilty verdicts against five officers overturned.

“Prosecutorial misconduct in this case is a very near and present thing,” Judge Kurt Engelhardt wrote. But he added that the possibility of the verdicts being overturned seemed “somewhat distant.” Engelhardt refused to reject the convicted officers’ motion to overturn their verdicts, however, saying he would wait for a Justice Department investigation of the matter before ruling. He also referred Mann’s and Perricone’s cases to several legal disciplinary boards.

Meanwhile, Letten is in a bind. He can defend himself by saying that he wasn’t aware of what his underlings were doing. But then what kind of defense is it to say that you weren’t aware of what your underlings were doing?

It all comes at the worst time for Letten. Four years ago, the George W. Bush appointee was retained by President Barack Obama, much to the joy of Louisiana Republicans, who feared that an Obama-appointed prosecutor might ignore Louisiana’s legendary corruption, especially if it was committed by another Democrat.

But soon after the news about Mann broke, Republican Sen. David Vitter seemed not so joyful any more. He called the allegations very serious and said he was troubled by Letten’s “silence” on the matter for several days. Meanwhile, Obama is in the process of deciding which U.S. attorneys he’ll keep for his second term.

So, as far as unintended consequences go, we already have Perricone’s departure and Mann’s demotion. We have the possibility of a major verdict being overturned and a U.S. attorney with a number of important convictions under his belt being forced out. All of that because of the siren lure of being able to post a few words online for everyone to see without them knowing who you are. Well, until they find out.

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@gmail.com.