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Starkville police investigating Twitter accounts

 

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PDF file File: New Twitter court order

Carl Smith

 

Starkville Police Department launched a new investigation last month into a Twitter account parodying an elected official, court documents show, but investigators say the case is not active or moving forward at this time. 

 

Sixteenth District Circuit Court Judge James Kitchens signed an order last month requesting data from Twitter -- the account holder's name, email address, IP address, physical address and billing information -- in connection with the @FeelingPerky handle, a Twitter account that parodies Vice Mayor Roy A. Perkins. 

 

The order, signed May 8, compels Twitter to furnish the records without notifying the subscriber, as it could potentially compromise the criminal investigation. It cites Miss. Code Ann. 97-7-43, a statute outlining crimes for impersonating state, county or municipal officers or employees. 

 

Each misdemeanor offense can carry a fine of not more than $500 and imprisonment of up to six months in jail.  

 

No charges have been filed as of Friday. 

 

SPD did not receive an official complaint against the account or its user, a police spokesperson said, and used its own discretion to initially begin the investigation. It is believed Twitter contacted SPD in regard to the request, but the department will not comment on ongoing investigations. 

 

The police department will continue to use its discretion in looking into Twitter accounts that are started without clearly identifying themselves as parody, SPD Capt. Troy Outlaw said. 

 

City Attorney Chris Latimer denied The Dispatch's May 23 Freedom of Information Act request associated with current and previous parody Twitter investigations, stating the records are exempt under Miss. Code Ann. 25-61-12(2)(a). 

 

That provision reads, "When in possession of a law enforcement agency, investigative reports shall be exempt from the provisions of this chapter; however, a law enforcement agency, in its discretion, may choose to make public all or any part of the investigative report." 

 

A similar request was given to SPD that same day but yielded no documents. 

 

The Dispatch used Twitter to contact @FeelingPerky Friday, but a reply was not given by Saturday. 

 

The faux account shows a photo of Perkins and lists the user as "Vice-Commander/Mayor, Ward 6 Alderman for Starksville (sic). Advocating for my super productive constituents. Progress = 1 step forward, 2 steps back." 

 

Its full name is listed as "Roy 250 Ft Perkins," a moniker believed to lampoon the board's failed attempt to loosen provisions for alcohol sales near churches and schools. 

 

Alcohol sales for on-site consumption in bars and restaurants are banned within 250 feet of those facilities, but city code already allows gas stations and liquor stores to sell alcohol for off-site consumption within 100 feet.  

 

The change would have put Starkville's law in line with state rules. 

 

The account also identifies itself as a parody at the end of the biography with "#parodyaccount," but it is unknown if the account self-identified itself as a parody when it was first created. 

 

According to Twitter, the first @FeelingPerky tweet found by The Dispatch originated at 9:42 p.m. on May 6, the night of a Starkville Board of Aldermen meeting. Its last tweet was sent Thursday. 

 

The account regularly interacts with members of the public; former city employees and elected officials who live tweet board meetings; the press when it covers city governance and stories dealing with Perkins and other aldermen; and other Twitter parody accounts of Starkville representatives, including Not Henry Vaughn (@Henry_Comments). 

 

Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn, who was the target of one of two recent ethics complaints, sits next to Perkins at meetings. 

 

"Good thing I voted to extend alcohol sales so you sinners could stay up late celebrating. Wait, no, that wasn't me. #progress," @FeelingPerky tweeted 35 days ago to former Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill. 

 

Starkville was vaulted to the national spotlight last year after a similar court order signed by Kitchens asked Twitter to release information associated with a social media account satirizing Ward 3 Alderman David Little. 

 

That order was related to @DavidLittleBOA, which documents show was later changed to @DavidLittleFake. 

 

A cursory Twitter search Friday showed neither accounts now exist. 

 

Former SPD Chief David Lindley complied with a previous FOIA request for investigative documents, one similar to the one delivered in May to the police department. 

 

SPD was alerted to a second parody account, Parody Ben Carver (@BenCarverPrays), at the same time last year.  

 

Since news of the investigation broke, other Twitter accounts parodying aldermen and the city's current political climate were created. 

 

A new account mocking Little -- David Little Parody (@DLcantscareme) -- features a picture of the Ward 3 alderman edited to show him breathing fake fire. Its biography reads, "Parody account created by someone who has read the United States Constitution and will not be bullied by thin-skinned local politicians (or their mommies)." 

 

Another, Notanalderman (@Notanalderman), has a biography that clearly identifies itself as a parody and states the board does "a fantastic job and allow (sic) God to lead them in making the best decisions for our fine city." 

 

The Dispatch reached out to all four parody account holders through direct messages for quotes Friday. The only respondent, Notanalderman, said he or she thinks repercussions could occur if his or her identity is revealed as a vocal critic of some of Starkville's aldermen even though the account does not parody one specific elected official. 

 

"But they can expect a lawsuit," the account holder said. "I think they're wasting taxpayer money, but they've been good at that so far. 

 

"The First Amendment is definitely important in both cases; however, I personally can say whatever I want in public, but that doesn't mean that there won't be repercussions for what I say. It's not just the First Amendment, but if knowledge serves me correctly, I think (the Fifth and Sixth Amendments) apply somewhat also," the account holder added. "(Mississippi) has a law preventing one from impersonating another, but I'm not sure if parody accounts fully apply. A parody account with 'parody' in the name insinuates what it's intended to be: a joke. When did it become illegal for someone to tell a joke? I must have missed that headline." 

 

The Dispatch interviewed the person who operates the Carver parody last year. The source said another Twitter user, @BullyNews, who claimed to be a journalist, requested an interview and directed to call a cell phone number in July. 

 

The phone number given by the account posing as a journalist matched a cell phone number given to The Dispatch that same month by the SPD detective leading the Twitter investigation. 

 

While the department has utilized Twitter in previous investigations, Former SPD Chief David Lindley said last year it does not maintain an official Twitter account and denied knowledge of any subordinate using a fake account to investigate parodies.  

 

The now-defunct handle @BullyNews, the one used to interact with the Carver parody, previously contacted a fake SPD account and requested an interview with its operator in 2012, an Internet search last year showed.  

 

SPD went on to arrest a 19-year-old Starkville resident for impersonating a police officer that year. 

 

The @BullyNews account also referenced an outbreak of graffiti with two tweets that year, with the account saying it was interested in interviewing the assailant and it would keep his or her identity secret.  

 

A 20-year-old Starkville resident was arrested later that year after he pleaded guilty to 16 acts of graffiti. 

 

The profile picture previously associated with the now-defunct @BullyNews account appeared last year to be a photograph from -- at least used by -- the London, England-based firm Kelso Consulting London Public Relations Agency. 

 

A screen capture taken by The Dispatch before the account was deactivated showed the photo was marked with the text "Twitter and professional services." 

 

When SPD's Twitter investigation began last year, the Carver parody operator shut down the account temporarily on July 31 out of fear of prosecution, the source said. The operator has since re-opened the account. 

 

"When the police come out and say they're actively investigating a possibility of criminal charges -- identity theft -- it's like, 'Whoa, I'm not hacking into someone's credit card information.' I'm just telling jokes," the parody account operator told The Dispatch in August. 

 

"It's more of a social experiment. Starkville is a small enough town that you can have a Twitter parody account of an elected official and only have 100 followers. It was a local story, but the investigation turned into a regional and national story." 

 

Many city elected officials and employees operate Twitter accounts and use them in personal, professional and municipal capacities, including Mayor Parker Wiseman, Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker, Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard and CAO Taylor Adams. An account exists for Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn, but it is not known if it is an official account.

 

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch

 

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