Candidates' staffers increasingly caught (red-handed) on the Web

The most famous campaign aide of the 2006 cycle is, arguably, not a campaign manager, a consultant or even a spokesperson. It’s S.R. Sidarth, the Indian-American University of Virginia student whom Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) called “Macaca.”

The most famous campaign aide of the 2006 cycle is, arguably, not a campaign manager, a consultant or even a spokesperson. It’s S.R. Sidarth, the Indian-American University of Virginia student whom Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) called “Macaca.”

The volunteer for Democrat Jim Webb’s campaign was following around an opponent with a camcorder, like many campaigns do today, when Allen’s taunts created a firestorm of publicity.

For good or ill, campaign and congressional aides for many candidates around the country are becoming a part of the story during their bosses’ runs for office. Technological advances such as blogs, YouTube and Wikipedia combined with a false sense of security on the Internet are often the root cause of problems that occur, say political technology experts.

The latest example came this week when a policy researcher for Vermont Republican House candidate Martha Rainville was let go for apparently plagiarizing other politicians’ statements. The statements appear to have been lifted from transcripts available on the Web and the plagiarized politicians’ websites. The staffer, Chris Stewart, used them in drafting press releases and policy positions on Rainville’s website.

A contributor to the Vermont politics blog Reason and Brimstone discovered the similarities and posted them to the blog on Sunday. Facing questions about the charges, Stewart resigned Monday.

Similarly, a senior congressional aide to Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) resigned last week amid revelations that he used a government computer to write misleading posts on liberal blogs. In the posts, policy director Tad Furtado, posting anonymously, claimed to support Bass’s challenger but suggested that supporters move their efforts to other districts since Bass would be hard to beat.

One of the blogs revealed that the posts’ Internet Protocol, or IP, address originated from the House of Representatives, which may be a violation of House ethics rules that limit campaign activity in members’ personal offices.

Other staffers’ racial slurs have been caught on tape or have been caught with information they obtained through hacking websites. The staffers also have been caught trying to infiltrate an opponent’s campaign and changing their candidates’ entries on the user-edited online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Unethical or underhanded tactics by staffers is nothing new. Advances in technology, however, have created new outlets that allow for a bigger impact and also for a mistaken sense that the tactics can’t be traced to the source, said Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The old adage that nobody knows you’re a dog when you’re on the Internet — that’s only partially true,” Delli Carpini said. “You can hide your identity to some degree. But if somebody really wants to find out what the source of the information is, it’s not that hard to do.”

Examples of this false anonymity abound this cycle.

In June a college student volunteer for the campaign of Democratic Kentucky 3rd District House candidate John Yarmuth was discovered to have walked into the campaign office of Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) and attempted to volunteer for her campaign under an alias.

A Northup staffer recognized the student, Robert Kahne, from a picture posted on a website supporting Yarmuth. Then, by looking at Kahne’s MySpace.com profile, the Northup campaign found his blog, in which he wrote that he hated Republicans and that they all should be killed. Kahne later said the comments were written in jest.

As in Yarmuth’s case, MySpace, Facebook.com and other social networking sites are posing increasing risks for politicians. The Washington gossip blog Wonkette has posted several snapshots of embarrassing or incriminating information or pictures on the profiles of politicians’ children.

Colleges are increasingly encouraging students to scrub their profiles of objectionable material when searching for jobs. Likewise, political campaigns are going to have to inform staffers about the pitfalls of the new technology, because few issues are off-limits in today’s political environment, said Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

“It’s just indicative of the era that we live in and the fact that politics has become more polarized over the course of the past few years,” she said. “People are going to look for ways to take the other guy down. … It’s just so easy to dig up stuff on people.”

In Minnesota, the chief spokeswoman for Democrat Amy Klobuchar’s Senate campaign was let go in mid-September for viewing an unreleased campaign ad for Klobuchar’s opponent, Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), and urging fellow staffers to view it.

The aide, Tara McGuinness, received the ad from a local Democratic blogger, who said he gained access to it by correctly guessing a password on a Kennedy consultant’s website. Federal authorities were investigating the situation.

Klobuchar’s campaign preemptively disclosed the deeds, but Republican New Jersey Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr.’s campaign hasn’t been as forthcoming after Sen. Robert Menendez’s (D-N.J.) campaign two weeks ago accused Kean’s spokeswoman of anonymously posting messages critical of Menendez on a Democratic blog.

The messages contain the same IP address that has appeared on press releases sent by the aide, Jill Hazelbaker, the blog found. Kean’s campaign denied that she wrote the messages and downplayed the seriousness of the alleged conduct.

Senate candidate Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) fired a staffer last month after it was revealed that on her blog she joked about a 2002 event in which Cardin’s opponent, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who is black, said he had Oreo cookies thrown at him in a protested statement about Steele’s loyalty to his race.

The staffer, Ursula Gruber, suggested Cardin’s campaign staff should pose with the cookies and caption it “Devouring the Competition.” She also blogged about being a “sex object” for Cardin’s friends with “Jewish noses,” a posting that Cardin, who is Jewish, interpreted as having “anti-Semitic overtones.”

Rep. John Kline’s (R-Minn.) district director Michael Osskopp was caught on video last month decrying all of the “Jap” cars — i.e., foreign-made vehicles — driven by supporters of Kline’s opponent, Democrat Coleen Rowley. The video was shot by Democratic activists and posted on a Democratic blog. Osskopp later apologized.

James Thurber, a professor at American University who has studied campaign conduct extensively, said staffer actions that distract from a candidate’s message are an indication of a poorly run campaign. Effectively run campaigns employ consultants that look into staffer blogs before they become a problem.

“They’re trying to control it, and they know about the technologies,” Thurber said. “They’re trying to use the technologies to the benefit of the candidate. Sometimes they can’t control what volunteers or others do, and that’s a problem.

“The pros do it, and if they aren’t controlling it, it’s not a well-run campaign.”