Democrats used state funds to research foes
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HARRISBURG -- As the pivotal 2006 legislative election season began, top Democratic House aides, using state resources, undertook a wide-ranging opposition research campaign into both Democratic and Republican office seekers, e-mails show.
The project was spearheaded by Eric Webb, director of the Democratic Office of Member Services, who, on Jan. 31, sent e-mails to state employees advising them to begin digging up information on 35 declared and potential candidates for the state House.
"We are mainly looking for bad things: liens, bankruptcies, homicides ... you get the picture," Mr. Webb advised a dozen House colleagues via their state e-mail accounts. Employees were asked to use LexisNexis, an online search service that makes use of thousands of databases. The state had several LexisNexis accounts that a grand jury later said were used for opposition research.
Mr. Webb told staffers to send results from the searches to Dan Wiedemer, executive director of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee, at Mr. Wiedemer's political campaign address.
Many of those targeted in the project were sponsored by PACleanSweep, a group formed to oust lawmakers who had voted for an unpopular legislative pay raise.
Democrats ultimately won a majority in the state House that year, but the victory was tainted, according to a grand jury report that found that millions of dollars in state resources were diverted to cover the cost of running Democratic campaigns.
Mr. Webb, in an e-mail to the House staff, said he was helping Mr. Wiedemer; Michael Manzo, then chief of staff to Democratic Leader H. William DeWeese; as well as "MRV," a set of initials commonly used to identify then-Minority Whip Michael R. Veon, D-Beaver.
Neither Mr. Wiedemer nor Mr. Webb responded to requests for comment.
Mr. Veon and Mr. Manzo were among a dozen current and former state lawmakers and employees named in a pair of grand jury presentments alleging widespread corruption, including using state employees and resources for partisan political ends.
The e-mails, obtained by the Post-Gazette, support the grand jury's assertion last week that the Democratic caucus "relied almost exclusively on its employees for the completion of opposition research."
Relying on LexisNexis
Mr. Webb testified before the grand jury under a grant of immunity. He was among seven top House staffers fired last November because of their involvement in an alleged scheme to use taxpayer funded pay bonuses to reward House employees who worked on campaigns in the 2006 elections -- the same year for which Mr. Webb sought research information in his Jan. 31 e-mail.
In those e-mails, Mr. Webb advised House employees to seek bankruptcy filings, civil and criminal court fillings and criminal histories.
Mr. Webb included a template that included the person's name, House district, date of birth, and first five numbers of the candidate's social security number.
He also offered to e-mail staffers a synopsis report on the individuals to be researched including their previous addresses.
Mr. Webb then advised the staffers, who had been contacted through the state e-mail system, to send their reports directly from the LexisNexis research site to Mr. Wiedemer at his House Democratic campaign address.
The e-mails mirror the findings of a grand jury presentment unsealed in Harrisburg July 10. The report described a system in which taxpayer-funded LexisNexis accounts were routinely used to perform research and in which state employees would sometimes travel to county courthouses to check records on opponents and bill the trips to the state.
The grand jury also said that Mr. Manzo directed Nora Sabo, an employee in Mr. Webb's office, to conduct opposition research on prospective Republican gubernatorial candidates Lynn Swann and William Scranton III.
In the case of the January 2006 research into CleanSweep and other candidates, eight caucus employees, including Mr. Webb, top Veon aide Brett Cott and Ms. Sabo were given lists of candidates on whom to begin research.
The origins of the January list are not clear from the e-mails, but the grand jury report says it found e-mails -- which it did not detail -- that "show the executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee [at that time it would have been Mr. Wiedemer] sending lists of opposition research reports to be completed to Veon, Cott, Manzo, Webb, Jen Brubaker and others." Ms. Brubaker, who was among those charged July 10, was director of the Democratic Office of Legislative Research.
The Legislative Research office was raided on Aug. 23 of last year by state agents who carted away 20 boxes that contained opposition research materials dating to the early 1990s.
Prosecutors said the Legislative Research Office was a primary provider of opposition research on political opponents until early 2005, when Mr. Webb proposed shifting that work to the Office of Member Services.
The grand jury cited testimony by Mr. Webb that a concerted push of opposition research from Member Services began in the summer of 2006, although the e-mails obtained by the Post-Gazette suggest such a push might have begun months earlier.
Research subjects respond
Some candidates who were the subject of the opposition project last week reacted with a mix of outrage and bemusement on learning they had been targeted.
Paula Brown, the former mayor of Darby, Delaware County, planned to run against Rep. James Roebuck in the 2006 Democratic primary but was forced from the race when her nominating petitions were challenged.
Ms. Brown said she spent countless hours traveling to Harrisburg, where she was repeatedly denied access to information relating to Mr. Roebuck's legislative expenses.
"I made numerous trips just trying to obtain his salary. I had to put my request in writing and at one point I was ready to just camp out in the Capitol because I kept getting the runaround. It was crazy," said Ms. Brown. "At the same time they were using state staff to investigate me? It's abominable. How dare they do that with our tax dollars," she said.
Mark A. Purcell, a CleanSweep candidate from Pittsburgh, said he got a hint that something might be going on when he decided to check some records from his years as a Ross commissioner.
"I suspected that somebody was up in Ross looking at the voting records. There were pieces of paper in the minutes books," he said. "It was obvious to me that somebody was looking at the same pages I was looking at."
Mr. Purcell unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Democrat Don Walko in the 20th District.
Another unsuccessful candidate, John J. Wieczorek, a Democrat from Lehighton, Carbon County, said he was forewarned the day the CleanSweep delegation gathered in the Capitol rotunda to announce their plans.
Mr. Wieczorek said another candidate warned him "Don't worry -- I'm sure they already have a dossier on you."
Challengers, he added, are "already up against the establishment, and now they're using our own tax dollars to investigate us. That's incredible. I pay my tax dollars to have someone investigate me."
First Published July 20, 2008 12:00 am