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Kevin Cullen

Ortiz should offer answers

If US Attorney Carmen Ortiz is serious about going into politics, somebody needs to sit her down and explain a few things about the art of public relations.

First, while it helps to have a supportive spouse, said spouse should be advised to keep ­social media commentary to himself. Especially when said commentary is directed at the family whose sensitivities you have cited in refusing to explain yourself.

Second, promising the media a statement all day and then delivering it at 10:45 at night is not exactly a winning strategy. Most likely the blame lay somewhere in Washington, where someone at a higher pay grade had to sign off. But, ­absent an explanation, the unusual late-night statement “Regarding the Death of Aaron Swartz” came off as somewhat haughty.


Finally, issuing a three-paragraph statement after a 26-year-old man without a criminal record has killed himself amid widespread accusations that your office was pursuing a vindictive prosecution just doesn’t cut it.

If Ortiz really believes that her office acted appropriately — not just in charging Swartz with crimes that carry the possibility of a sentence usually reserved for the most unconscionable criminals, but by insisting on prison time for someone who she concedes was acting on principle for no financial gain — then she should be willing to explain herself at length. And that wasn’t what she did Thursday when she took a few questions at an unrelated news conference before abruptly ending the inquisition.

Here’s one I’d like to ask: Did Swartz’s struggle with debilitating depression ever enter the equation as prosecutors insisted he plead guilty to 13 felonies and serve six months in prison? And if it didn’t, why not?

Here’s another: What purpose would be served by locking Swartz up, even if it was, as Ortiz was at pains to point out, a low-security setting? What purpose would be served by forcing him to accept the ­label of felon? Swartz was willing to ­accept probation terms that would have mandated prison if he reoffended. Why wasn’t that enough?


Last Friday, on the same day that Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment, prosecutors from Ortiz’s office stood in a Boston courtroom and allowed a former state representative named ­Stephen “Stat” Smith to plead guilty to a misdemeanor for rigging absentee ballots in three elections. Swartz’s lawyers asked for the same consideration, that Swartz be ­allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. Prosecutors refused.

So, given that Ortiz will not explain herself, we’ll just have to presume she believes that illegally manipulating the outcome of elections, which are the essence of our democracy, is less serious an ­offense than downloading an online archive of obscure academic articles.

As Swartz’s lawyer, Elliot Peters, notes, if Swartz had pleaded guilty to felonies as prosecutors demanded, among the rights he would have forfeited was his right to vote. While Swartz’s brilliance as a Web programmer and advocate for a more informed public has been duly noted, he was also a committed prodemocracy activist. And the government, his government, wanted to disenfranchise him.

Ironically, the Internet and social ­media that Swartz believed so deeply in as a means to a better informed, socially engaged public have been used to cast ugly insults and even threats against Ortiz and prosecutors in her office. That’s indefensible. But Ortiz is doing herself no favors by refusing to explain at length decisions made in a case that raises legitimate concerns about antiquated laws and government overreach in the digital age. Such reticence doesn’t bode well for someone contemplating a future in politics.


It isn’t too much to expect a public servant to take questions that serve the public.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.