In interviews, orchestrated e-mails and a new radio ad, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum claims that his challenger's campaign was complicit in "snooping" on his Penn Hills house and "instilling fear" in his family and neighbors.
State Treasurer Bob Casey rejected the charge, releasing a statement calling them "weird" and "bizarre" efforts to distract voters from the incumbent's record.
The exchanges are the latest eruption in a recurring controversy over the house the Santorum family has owned since 1997, and in a campaign of criticism by Penn Hills Democrats who contend that it should not be considered his legal residence.
The latest exchange was sparked by a KDKA-TV report in which Ed Vecchio, a Penn Hills resident, contested Mr. Santorum's right to vote from that address in last week's primary election.
Mr. Vecchio, whose wife, Erin, is chairwoman of the community's Democratic Party, claimed Mr. Santorum does not live in the home and described it as empty of curtains and furniture.
In multiple interviews last week, Mr. Santorum angrily denounced that statement as a tacit admission that Mr. Vecchio, who he characterized as a Casey operative, had spied on his home and peered in its windows.
Both Vecchios denied that charge.
Erin Vecchio said yesterday that the statement about the house's condition was based on a news article in the Penn Hills Progress.
"They are out-and-out liars," Mrs. Vecchio said of the Santorum campaign. While acknowledging that she and her husband were active Democrats, she denied any formal connection or consultation with the Casey campaign. Mr. Vecchio is employed as a truck driver for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Santorum campaign claimed the KDKA report shows that Mr. Vecchio admitted he had trespassed on the property. In the report, however, Mr. Vecchio describes the house as empty but never says that he had personally looked in its windows.
John Brabender, a senior adviser to the Santorum campaign, insisted that the characterization was a reasonable inference from Mr. Vecchio's statement.
"The only assumption that we could make is that they had firsthand knowledge," he said. "For Casey to put something out there that says the Santorums don't live there is not only wrong but dangerous. ... They feel violated."
On its Web site, the Republican's campaign charges that "Casey's crew violated the Santorum family's home in search of political ammunition, instilling fear in Rick Santorum's wife, Karen, their six children, his in-laws and their neighbors to the point where the police had to be called in to protect the home."
The Democrat's campaign issued a statement from Mr. Casey and his wife denouncing the suggestions that they were in any way responsible for the scrutiny of Mr. Santorum's house:
"We are outraged that Sen. Santorum is making false and malicious charges, and bringing our families into a long-running dispute he has with Penn Hills residents about his residency status."
In a dispute starting in 2004, Mrs. Vecchio, as a member of the Penn Hills school board, protested the fact that the school district had been paying tuition for Mr. Santorum's children who were enrolled at a cyber charter school.
A state hearing officer later dismissed a legal challenge to the payments, ruling that the objection hadn't been filed in time, but the Santorums, who spend much of the year at another residence in Virginia, elected to withdraw their children from the charter school.
Ronald Machesky, Penn Hills' public safety director, said that U.S. Capitol Police had contacted him last week, relaying concerns from Mrs. Santorum about the possibility of intruders on the Penn Hills property. He said that Penn Hills police have, in response, been checking the area since May 16.
Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.