Two in New Orleans U.S. Attorney’s Office Ensnared by Their Own Coils
By David Stout | December 19, 2012 12:53 pm

“Dubiety: the quality of being dubious; doubtfulness.”

Sal Perricone’s use of the word “dubiety,” as defined above by Webster’s, was one of the mistakes that cost Perricone his job in the New Orleans U.S. Attorney’s office. That is, the word helped to ensnare him in “coils” of his own making, “coils” being another word that Perricone liked too much.

Sal Perricone

Forensic linguist James Fitzgerald zeroed in on Perricone as one of the online commentators about federal cases in the Eastern District of Louisiana by analyzing the commentator’s syntax and choice of vocabulary, as explained by Jack Hitt in the New Yorker. (Those who haven’t followed every ebb and flow of the scandal that drove U.S. Attorney Jim Letten from office can bring themselves up to date by reading Main Justice’s comprehensive account of the case.)

Very briefly, Fred Heebe, a former political rival of Letten’s and more recently operator of a big landfill, has been under scrutiny in connection with some lucrative contracts.  Typically, federal investigators are circumspect about ongoing investigations, sometimes refusing even to say if there is an investigation, but Louisiana is anything but typical.

Anyhow, Fitzgerald analyzed documents in some 15,000 federal cases in Louisiana and found that only Perricone, then a longtime Assistant U. S. Attorney, had used the word “coil” to mean “snare.” And those 15,000 cases yielded only 40 uses of the word “dubiety,” some by the anonymous commentator, who went by the handleHenry L. Mencken1951.”

The anonymous writer was doing three or four postings a day, indicating that he didn’t have enough hobbies and that he wanted to be like Mencken, the acerbic journalist, essayist and critic. Oh, and Perricone was born in 1951.

Jan Mann, another top Letten aide, was similarly undone.  She, too, liked to vent online. Her handle was “eweman.” Was the handle meant to suggest a female sheep with male attributes or, perhaps, was it derived from the initials of Louisiana’s legendarily roguish former Governor, Edwin L. Edwards, along with the letters in Mann’s name?

Hitt’s advice in the New Yorker to anyone thinking of emulating Perricone or Mann: “Don’t create an anonymous handle that includes the year of your own birth (Henry L. Mencken1951) or one that contains a homonym of your own name (eweman).” For a more serious treatment of the New Orleans episode, check out The New York Times, whose account notes that Louisiana’s two senators, David Vitter (R) and Mary Landrieu (D), agree that the situation is troubling and serious.

Fitzgerald, it should be noted, is a pioneer in the science (and art?) of forensic linguistics and helped to nab Unabomber Ted Kaczynski by analyzing peculiarities in the bomber’s writings.

Finally, a personal note.  The author of this post majored in English a long time ago and, false modesty aside, we have a pretty good vocabulary.  But we (note the pompous royal “we”) have never written or uttered the word “dubiety.”  Oops, now we have.


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