State Rep. Jesse White was caught recently impersonating some of his constituents on the Internet, but in the days since that revelation, it appears those identities were just the tip of what is becoming a somewhat "creepy" iceberg for the Cecil Democrat.
Mr. White at first denied the accusations from KDKA-TV's Andy Sheehan in a May 29 report detailing his use of pseudonyms to attack some of his constituents who favor Marcellus Shale gas well drilling, but he did an about-face shortly after a meeting with Frank Dermody, Democratic leader of the state House, and apologized for his actions.
On May 30, Mr. White acknowledged that he used fictitious Internet identities to criticize the drilling industry and apologized if he had offended two people named in the television report.
In his apology, Mr. White said he had used no government resources and blamed the industry for engaging in similar conduct.
"On occasion, I have exercised my First Amendment rights and responded in kind, which was an error in judgment that I regret," the 33-year-old said.
Since then, local news agencies have been scrambling to tie Mr. White, who also works as a lawyer, to various other online identities that were used to smear political opponents, the National Rifle Association, Christians and even 9/11 first responders.
The accusations could land Mr. White in more than just political hot water; district attorneys from Washington and Dauphin counties last week said they were reviewing information brought to them to check whether his actions were criminal.
"He created an army," said blogger and Marcellus Shale industry supporter Michael Knapp. "Everybody called him out on it. It if wasn't so sick, it would be comical."
Mr. White couldn't be reached for comment but it appears that he doubled as several well-known online commentators, with screen names like "Ashley Jackson," "Victoria Adams," "Texas Timmy Solobay" and others.
The personas, many of which claimed to be attractive, young -- and sometimes flirtatious -- women, allegedly were used mostly to fish for information from political operatives and launch the kind of attacks that Mr. White would normally distance himself from. He even railed against the damage done by anonymous online posters, using his real identity to write in an online blog:
"I'm referring to the 'Internet tough guys'-- people who sit behind a computer and spew outrageous amounts of misinformation, innuendo and outright hatred onto the Internet. These are people who would never have the guts to say such nonsense at a public meeting, but flourish in a coward's paradise provided by an Internet connection in an otherwise empty room.
" ... I do believe these people represent only a vocal minority. Some people are just hard-wired to complain no matter what; as we say on the Internet, 'haters gonna hate.' "
Mr. White won his seat in 2006 after incumbent legislator Victor Lescovitz decided not to run. A former supervisor in Cecil, Mr. White had a reputation for not taking criticism well, including filing an unsuccessful defamation lawsuit in 2004 against a small newspaper publisher in a dispute over whether Mr. White committed arson by burning a campaign sign.
He has since become known as a liberal Democrat who has largely been opposed to gas well drilling, although he disputes that characterization.
He has 5,000 Facebook friends -- the maximum -- and about 1,000 subscribers to his personal Facebook page, and another 4,200 friends that follow him on his fan page.
"It's growing rapidly and my network is over 10,000 [people] at this point," he said about social media in an interview last year. "I have the ability, in a lot of ways, to be my own media voice."
In real life
But, his online friendships don't seem to translate into real life.
In a 2008 article about Mr. White's bid for a second term in office, the Post-Gazette noted that few supporters turned out to Mr. White's campaign night celebration, although he faced a serious opponent, and described the atmosphere as "subdued in a manner that was almost business-like."
Mr. White hasn't seemed to make close personal connections with his colleagues, said state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, even though he roomed with some of them in Harrisburg.
"Even in Harrisburg, he's a loner," said Mr. Solobay, one of Mr. White's online targets.
Mr. White married his second wife, Eileen, in September and said late last year that the couple wanted to start a family soon.
Online, two of the primary targets of Mr. White and his online personas were Mr. Solobay, a member of his own delegation, and state Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver.
On his private Facebook page, Mr. Christiana said he has only ever blocked comments from two writers -- Ms. Jackson and Ms. Adams -- who, unbeknownst to him, were alter egos of Mr. White.
Although he and Mr. White both attended Washington & Jefferson College, Mr. White graduated before him and Mr. Christiana said he had no idea how he drew the ire of Mr. White or why he was selected as a target of his hate.
"Even I noticed that there was an infatuation with me," Mr. Christiana said. "I've always believed that elected officials should show respect and decorum. I was surprised."
Mr. Christiana said that although he and Mr. White have serious political differences, these attacks feel different.
"It is refreshing to finally see who was behind all of it," he said. "I disagree with legislators all the time on policy, but with him, it seems personal."
Mr. Solobay, who favors responsible gas drilling, said he never thought a political ally could turn on him so viciously.
"This is most definitely cowardly," he said. "If we have a difference of opinion that's something we can work out."
Mr. Solobay said Mr. White tried to make it appear that many of his constituents were against him. But, Mr. Solobay said, he began to see residents' true feelings about natural gas drilling at community events and meetings, where many turned out to support the industry.
Some of the attacks from "Texas Timmy Solobay" were beyond outrageous, Mr. Solobay said, and could lead to legal trouble for Mr. White.
"Attacking these people was inexcusable," said Mr. Solobay, who said Mr. White burned some bridges and created "irreparable divisions," between himself and other members of the public and the Legislature.
Each of the identities were taken down from social media sites after Mr. White's apology.
Mr. Knapp, vice president of land and public relations at MDS Energy Development, a gas driller in Kittanning, Armstrong County, said some of Mr. White's comments were "really crazy."
It appears that each online persona had its own personality, so to speak. "Texas Timmy Solobay," apparently a parody of the senator, was arguably the worst, tweeting offensive, sexist and crude remarks to women in the media and conservative politics and accusing Mr. Solobay of criminal and unethical behavior.
"Ashley Jackson" appeared to be used to attack Mr. White's political enemies in the persona of a pretty, young, blond woman whose Facebook page suggests she's bisexual.
"Victoria Adams" was a young woman deployed to gather insider information about the shale business, including from Mr. Knapp. She sent angry messages when Mr. Knapp wrote a blog that was critical of Mr. White.
"It was so creepy that I just deleted it," said Mr. Knapp about private messages of a flirtatious nature that were sent to him under Ms. Adams' name. "It was obvious to me that this wasn't a 17-year-old blond girl."
It's all politics
Joseph DiSarro, a professor of politics at W&J who knows Mr. White, said he thought Mr. White's alter egos were developed to settle political -- not personal -- scores.
"I think it's politically motivated," said Mr. DiSarro, chairman of the college's political science department. "I'm very perplexed by it. At the end of the day, if you're in politics, you're going to have people against you. It will never end. You've got to have thick skin in politics today."
Mr. Knapp has called on Mr. White to resign.
"His apology was snotty and he only apologized because he got caught," Mr. Knapp said. "I absolutely think he should resign. If he was my representative, I'd be out in front of his office with a sign across my neck."
Bill Patton, the press secretary for the House Democratic Caucus, said Mr. White's actions were "very troubling," and stemmed from personality conflicts with Mr. Solobay and others.
"We know Jesse acknowledged his mistake and apologized for that," Mr. Patton said. "I don't think it's necessary for him to resign."
Mr. DiSarro said that Mr. White's political future may be salvaged because his actions might not have been illegal.
"This is why in politics you don't make enemies," he said. "You can't use methods that are unfair, unethical or even inappropriate. Once you've done that, you've stepped into the gutter."
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-851-1867.