A former federal prosecutor who worked for US Attorney Jim Letten was recently disbarred for comments he made online using an alias in New Orleans.
Sal Perricone’s comments on the Times-Picayune newspaper’s website, NOLA.com resulted in Letten’s resignation and several new trials.
Times have changed. Ten years ago, this exact sort of behavior resulted in a wrist slap.
After Hurricane Katrina, multiple people with the Army Corps of Engineers engaged in the same behavior as Mr. Perricone did.
Specifically, corps personnel – persons in a position of public trust – were disguising their identities, pretending to be objective onlookers and using NOLA.com’s user-engagement features to viciously attack anyone who criticized the corps.
One of their targets was me and the grassroots group Levees.org which I founded with my fifteen year old son after the levees broke.
Right from the beginning, Levees.org was heavily critical of the corps for its design mistakes.
It appears that, in response, the corps dedicated considerable resources attempting to discredit me and anyone who supported the fledgling grassroots group. The motive was clear.
There was a lot of money at stake.
A class action suit had been filed that could have resulted in many billions in a court judgement.
So corps personnel engaged aggressively in online warfare.
Keep in mind that this was ten years ago, It was still the wild west in the world of online commenting. The concept of posting an anonymous comment to a news story was still brand new.
Furthermore, ten years ago, the process was unregulated. Media houses generally used a hands off approach and did nothing while commenters publicly slandered ordinary citizens like myself.
At NOLA.com, commenters were allowed to label me a liar until as recently as 2013.
Levees.org was one of the first victims of online warfare, namely, when a squadron of foot soldiers wages warfare on social media with the goal of defamation.
This behavior went on from 2006 until 2008.
Then, in December of 2008, using tools available to any amateur blogger, I discovered irrefutable proof that the vicious comments were coming from corps headquarters on Leake Avenue.
Backend tools and a free tracking website allowed me to see the IP addresses associated with the vicious comments. The IP addresses showed – in bright red numbers – that the comments were emanating from corps computers in New Orleans.
When I brought the proof to the attention of then corps commander Col. Alvin Lee, he insisted that it was the work of “one individual among 1600 people” and he sent a memo to his staff instructing them to “stop that.”
In early 2009 – after Col. Lee had issued his memo – the managing editor of nola.com and his assistant printed and viewed a spreadsheet that contained nearly 700 disparaging comments in a six-week period alone coming from corps HQ. The comments were attributed to about 20 regular posters.
So in June of 2009, Levees.org requested then US Senator Mary Landrieu to demand that the Pentagon investigate. Senator Landrieu agreed to do so and kept her word.
The Pentagon inquiry took six weeks. John Crane, Assistant Inspector General for the Department of Defense concluded that Col Lee “took appropriate actions once informed of the allegations at issue.”
The Pentagon concluded that the Colonel asking his subordinates to “stop that” was sufficient.
Fast forward to today, someone in a position of public trust doing the exact same behavior – abuse of a public forum – received much more than a wrist slap. And rightly so.