Friday, November 9, 2012

A culture of hubris

It’s often said that bad luck comes in threes; when two bad things happen, expect a third piece of bad news soon. If that old saw holds true, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten better brace himself, because federal target Fred Heebe appears far from finished with his campaign to discredit top prosecutors in Letten’s office.

Letten already had a major W-T-F moment last March, when Heebe exposed then-federal prosecutor Sal Perricone as the vituperative, vitriolic, verbose online commenter “HenryLMencken1951” on the web site.

At the time of Perricone’s fall, many speculated that others in Letten’s office knew about Perricone’s anonymous rants — and maybe even joined in the cyber-fun. Now we know that it was much more than speculation.

On Nov. 2, Heebe filed a defamation lawsuit against Jan M. Mann, the No. 2 person in Letten’s office and his most trusted lieutenant. The suit alleges that Mann, like Perricone, posted venomous, anonymous rants on — many of which, like Perricone’s histrionics, betrayed an inside knowledge of federal investigations. Mann’s alleged nom de plume was “eweman.”

Heebe’s suit claims that “eweman” and “HenryLMencken1951” often commented on the same stories, and sometimes within minutes of one another — an online tag team of sorts. Equally interesting, “eweman” stopped posting right after Perricone was exposed as Mencken.

On Thursday (Nov. 8), Letten issued a terse statement admitting only that Mann posted comments, not that she was “eweman,” and that she had been demoted. OPR is once again on the case.

Which brings us to the Rule of Threes: what else (or who else) is out there?

The obvious target of suspicion now is Mann’s husband, Jim Mann, another top supervisor in Letten’s office and a close professional friend of Perricone. If there were an online troika of tirades based in the U.S.

Attorney’s office, Jim Mann would stand out as the obvious suspect of being The Third Mann. He sleeps with one of the offenders and is best pals with the other. I’m not accusing him of anything; I’m just pointing out what’s obvious in a case that, so far, has been brimming with evidence that practically glows in the dark.
We may not know for a while if anyone else is implicated. The Perricone matter isn’t even resolved, and now there’s a new wrinkle. The feds do things meticulously, deliberately. It takes them months, sometimes years, to indict known crooks. Don’t expect them to rush things against one (or two, or three) of their own. Besides, Mann enjoys civil service protection, which always slows things down.

Mann reportedly has vowed to fight if she’s terminated. She may claim a constitutional right to express opinions from her home, but as a top federal prosecutor she also has an ethical duty to refrain from commenting on open cases — from anywhere. She also has a professional obligation not to embarrass the DOJ. If she was questioned by OPR about Perricone, she better not have misled them; that would be a felony.

Perricone claims he acted alone. What did he tell OPR?

Meanwhile, Letten’s future as U.S. Attorney suddenly looks bleak. Both of Louisiana’s U.S. senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, have distanced themselves from Letten. Both previously were among his biggest supporters.

I’m willing to believe Letten didn’t know about Perricone and Mann. His critics say he should have known, but that argument is based on what, him spying on his assistants? No, the best argument against Letten’s continued tenure is not that he should have known — assuming he in fact did not know — but rather on the more fundamental premise that he either created or allowed to be created a culture of hubris at the office.

The Internet has lit up with Schadenfreude-laden emails and comments from former foes of Mann, all of them figurative end-zone dances at her demise. This goes beyond sour grapes. It reflects pent-up rage at what many consider decades of not just over-zealous prosecutorial efforts but also a needlessly bullying prosecutorial style.

The oldest rule of politics is this: What goes around comes around. Bad luck comes around with even greater force when one brings it on oneself.

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