It remains unclear who exactly instructed the city of Pensacola’s spokesman to launch an anonymous blog-commenting campaign in which he endorsed various aspects of Mayor Ashton Hayward’s agenda while criticizing entities viewed by the administration as political adversaries—including the Pensacola City Council and the Pensacola Police.
“I will have no further comment on this matter,” Public Information Officer Derek Cosson said in an email Friday.
A day prior, during a city council meeting, City Administrator Bill Reynolds had verified that Cosson was behind the anonymous postings. He said a letter of reprimand had been placed in the spokesman’s file, and that Cosson had acted at the direction of a superior who no longer worked for the city.
The administrator did not elaborate on who had instructed Cosson. Reynolds has not yet replied to a message left Friday afternoon; the administrator is not technically allowed to speak to the media—as per a new city press policy, only the PIO or mayor is authorized to speak with the press.
Working the math between the lines, speculation quickly zeroed in on former mayoral chief of staff John Asmar, who recently resigned.
“I never instructed Derek to use aliases to respond or to mischaracterize city council members, or to disparage them, ever,” said Asmar, adding that he had told Cosson to “respond to erroneous information” appearing in the media—“but that would be using his name.”
The former chief of staff said he did not believe Reynolds was referring to him.
“He’s assigned to the MIS department, that’s why I don’t think they’re referring to me,” Asmar said. “Paul Jones is the administrator now, he replaced Sherry—what’s her last name—Posey.”
Another city spokesman, Travis Peterson, also stepped away from his post last year. When contacted Friday, he said he never made anonymous posts in local media and that he never instructed Cosson to do so, either.
“I can only tell you that I didn’t direct Derek,” Peterson said. “I never thought it was a good idea to post under false names.”
The MIS department ultimately falls under the direction of Reynolds. More specifically, the city administrator outlined his involvement with press relations in an October 2011 email to Cosson and Peterson.
“As we continue to grow, I would like to see some more strategic planning in our press operations,” Reynolds wrote, proposing weekly meetings. “In the future, nothing gets released prior to my review. Once I have reviewed, it can then be sent for mayoral approval if required.”
Cosson’s anonymous commenting came to light when Independent News publisher Rick Outzen noticed that a comment from ‘Pensacola Fact Check’—criticizing both Outzen and Pensacola News Journal business reporter Carlton Proctor—stemmed from the same IP address as comments from Cosson. Upon reviewing past comments to ricksblog.biz, Outzen found numerous comments—logged under different names and politically consistent—stemming from the same IP address.
“Without exception, any time I have a comment about something on your blog it will be posted under my name or sent from this email address,” Cosson wrote when questioned about the anonymous posts. “I promise you, neither I nor Mayor Hayward spend half as much time worrying about your blog or your paper as you seem to think.”
Recently, the suspect comments pertained to the mayor’s attempted appointment to Escambia County’s RESTORE Act advisory committee—“David Penzone is highly qualified and would do a great job not just for the mayor but for the city”—and the Gallery Night blow-up that fed into contract negotiations with the Pensacola Police union.
“The thing that’s really surprised me about this whole incident is how the police officers don’t understand WHO THEY WORK FOR … if you or I went into a meeting and badmouthed our boss we would be let go immediately,” one comment read. “I think Hayward is showing a lot of restraint by handling the issue internally.”
A consistently favorite target of the blog comments in question is the city council. Members are referred to as the “KOOK PATROL,” or have their names altered—Pratt is changed to “Prattle,” while DeWeese is “DeWeasel.” The commenter refers to the city’s legislative body as the “Clowncil” and the “three-ring circus,” and individual members as “ridiculous” and “nasty and personal and a drama queen.”
“Our city council is embarrassing,” a commenter going by the name of Lewis J. Christopher logged in September. “What a sideshow.”
Comments apparently attributable to Cosson were often logged under a pseudonym playing off the name of outspoken mayoral-critic C.J. Lewis.
“Hilarious!” commenter Lewis J. Christopher wrote in late August. “Sources say DeWeese realized she couldn’t win her council race and is now desperate to stay in the headlines. Her blog, which reads like a schizophrenic off her medication, is sure to get even more entertaining as it becomes the mouthpiece of her campaign for municipal domination.”
Cosson also used his C.J.-alter ego on other local blogs. Lewis J. Christopher’s appearances included comments on the Pensacola Digest blog, as well as Occupy Pensacola’s Facebook page.
In August, Cosson used the name on the Occupy page to write that DeWeese could “keep writing as much crazy hoo-hah as she wants.” The commenter was confronted at that time by an Occupy representative, as well as, apparently, Lewis himself.
“Wow—the height of flattery—a Christopher J. Lewis impersonator,” wrote Occupy Pensacola. “Having fun being a fake and trying to tarnish a Pensacola resident’s reputation?”
“Mr Lewis is the impersonator,” Cosson replied. “He’s been riding my coattails for years.”
“I have a Facebook Troll? Wow!” commented Christopher J. Lewis the next day. “I bet it’s His Absentee Mayor Ashton J. Hayward III or someone working under orders passed down from the Office of the Mayor …”