United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz has had a rough year so far. If you'd Googled her any time before January 11, 2013, you'd learn how her name has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. You'd see that she was named "Bostonian of the Year" in 2011 for "targeting corruption and white-collar crime." You could even watch an hour-and-a-half-long lecture she gave to the Latino Leadership Initiative. What a great American that Google search would have made her seem!
And then January 11 arrived. That morning a young Internet activist named Aaron Swartz hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment not long after learning that he could spend up to 35 years in jail for what many would deem a harmless crime. Carmen Ortiz was his prosecutor, the one who threw the book at a well intentioned 26-year-old computer genius and the villain in a larger narrative about the Justice Department's draconian treatment of hackers that emerged in the days after Swartz's death. Google Carmen Ortiz today, and you'll get a very different picture of the veteran attorney, and it's not a pretty one.
One headline that might pop up in that search reads: "Ortiz in the Hot Seat." That's a bit of an understatement. The spotlight on Ortiz following Swartz's death has led some to posit her entire career is on the line. "The Justice Department is scrambling to answer pointed inquiries from a congressional committee about U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s prosecution of Internet whiz Aaron Swartz, raising the specter of a brutal Beltway hearing that could call her judgment into question as she pursues high-profile cases, including her Probation Department probe," reads the lede from the Boston Herald story this week.
It's brutal, but it's true. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by staunch SOPA opponent and outspoken Aaron Swartz advocate Darrell Issa, confirmed that representatives from the Justice Department will head to the Hill sometime soon and answer questions about Swartz's case. While Issa has criticized Ortiz in the press and praised Swartz on Capitol Hill, the chairman did say that he's "expecting to get line prosecutors" as the committee members "want the technical-team details." After all, even if Issa's made up his own mind about the whole situation, it'll take more than a bunch of bad press to convince the committee that the prosecutors were in the wrong. It's unclear if Ortiz will be one of those prosecutors, but since she's become the public face of the case on the Justice Department's end of things, it's hard to imagine that she wouldn't.
Just in case you haven't been following the Aaron Swartz saga, now is a good time to catch up. Basically, authorities hit Swartz with criminal hacking charges after he broke into the MIT network and downloaded millions of academic articles from JSTOR that he planned to distribute to the public for free. Despite the fact that neither MIT nor JSTOR pressed charges, the U.S. Attorney's office hit Swartz with 13 charges that could have led to decades in jail and as much as $1 million in fines. After the young defendant killed himself, Swartz's family pointed their finger firmly at Ortiz and company, calling the suicide "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach." Ortiz defended herself and her colleagues, saying soon thereafter that her "office's conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case." She continued, "The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably."
That all went down in the week after Swartz's death, and although Ortiz's "very bad, awful month" is over, February's not looking much better. Meanwhile, there's the Swartz hearing, first of all. In the past couple of weeks, a former defendant of hers has also stepped forward to complain about Ortiz's habit prosecutorial bullying, and the Boston Globe is now wondering whether she can survive politically after this whole mess. Years ago she was taken under the wing of the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. The jury's still out on whether or not anyone will rise to her defense now.