Saturday, April 22, 2006

Bush: Jamming in the Name of the GOP?

There's a bombshell in bottom half of Eleanor Clift's Newsweek column this week :

... A little noticed scandal in New Hampshire about phone-jamming is gaining traction. Initially dismissed as a petty political trick, it led to the trial and conviction for telephone harassment last December of the New England political director for the Republican National Committee, James Tobin. That in itself would barely register on anybody’s radar except Tobin was represented by one of Washington’s white shoe law firms, Williams & Connolly, and his legal fees were $2.5 million. The Republican National Committee picked up the tab, which suggests this may not have been a rogue operation. Was Tobin’s high-priced defense an effort to keep him from ratting out his contacts in the Bush White House? The RNC has said it paid Tobin’s legal fees because he is a long-time supporter and because he has maintained his innocence. Tobin is appealing his conviction.

Meeting with reporters over breakfast Wednesday morning, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said an examination of Tobin’s phone records revealed “hundreds of calls” between the White House and New Hampshire party operatives at the time of the phone-jamming on Election Day 2002. “I don’t think they were discussing the weather,” Dean said. The stakes were high in ’02. Democrats controlled the Senate by one vote and the White House was determined to regain the majority. In New Hampshire, Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and Republican John Sununu were in a tight race for the Senate. Get out the vote operations were critical to both sides, so when Democratic workers arrived at five key centers to find their phone lines jammed, they suspected dirty tricks.

They were right. The jamming was traced to an Idaho telemarketing firm. The fee for the jamming service, reportedly $15,600, was paid by the New Hampshire Republican Party through a Virginia consulting firm. Public records filed by the state GOP show three checks, each for $5,000, conveniently arriving to cover the charge just before the election. One was from Tom DeLay’s Americans for a Republican Majority; the others from Indian tribes that were clients of the now indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Shaheen lost to Sununu by just under 20,000 votes. Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman was White House political director at the time. He says a high volume of calls with field operatives is routine on election day, and that he had no knowledge of the phone jamming. Dean is dubious. “Let’s put him under oath and find out,” he says.

Mehlman and others could indeed end up testifying. In addition to Tobin, two others have already been convicted, Charles McGee, who was executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party in 2002, and the Virginia telemarketing executive hired to do the job. Meanwhile, a civil suit against the state’s GOP is in the courts. “We’re not going to let this go,” says Dean. Restoring public confidence in the Bush White House will take more than a change of venue for Rove. ...

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