Thursday, October 4, 2007

Phone-Jamming Scandal May Finally Be Solved

At the Huffington Post, Thomas B. Edsall writes:

One of the long-standing mysteries of the Bush presidency is whether the White House and Justice Department were involved in a 2002 New Hampshire voter suppression scandal that produced three criminal convictions but never touched the administration.

Now, with Democrats back in control of Congress, this mystery may finally get cleared up. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and subcommittee chairs, plan to investigate the controversial role of the Justice Department in the case.

There are two key issues questions involving Justice:

First, whether top officials there blocked a New Hampshire prosecutor from pursuing leads involving the White House and both the Republican National and Senatorial Committees.

Second, whether the Department purposely delayed prosecution of the one defendant with ties to the RNC and NRSC until after the 2004 election. The Department did attempt on October 15, 2004, just over two weeks before the election, to block depositions of key witnesses in a civil suit brought by the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

The vote suppression/phone jamming operation was dreamed up in 2002 by Charles McGee, executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, who obtained phone numbers of Democratic support groups offering Election Day rides to the polls, according to McGee's court testimony.

McGee then hired an Idaho telemarketing company to flood those numbers with phony calls, blocking all legitimate requests for help getting rides to the polls.

Initially, McGee's plan worked perfectly. For two hours, the Idaho firm tied up Democratic Party and pro-Democratic union phone lines, preventing seniors and others needing a lift to their voting places from being able to request rides.

"The phones were starting to ring, and as I would pick up one phone, it automatically bumped over to another line," testified Manchester firefighter Jeffery S. Duval, who was working the phones at his union's headquarters. "There was nobody on any of the phones. The phone lines were dead once we went to pick them up... We gave the police department a call."

Realizing there could be criminal implications, Republican leaders quickly ordered the telemarketing company to stop the jamming, according to court testimony. The FBI and the Justice Department were then called in because the allegations involved violations of federal telecommunications law.

The effort helped John E. Sununu (R) beat Jeanne Shaheen (D) in a tight Senate race by 51 to 47 percent, a 19,151-vote margin.

In addition to the questions about the role of the Justice Department, there were strong indications of involvement on the part of the White House and other D.C.-based pro-Republican groups:

* Over the course of 4 hours on Election Day, just as New Hampshire police began investigating the scheme to jam the phones, James Tobin, Northeast Regional Director for the Republican National and Senatorial Committees, made 22 phone calls to the White House political office, according to court records.

* Later, when Tobin was tried, the Republican National Committee paid $2.8 million to cover his legal fees. Tobin was found guilty, but an appeals court threw out the verdict on the grounds that the judge's orders to the jury were inadequate, and ordered a new trial. No date has been set.

* Another defendant in the case testified that when the phone-jamming operation was brought to a halt, an American Gas Association lobbyist, Darrell Henry, said he would get the Chamber of Commerce to take over the effort to disrupt the Democratic get out the vote undertaking. When Henry was deposed, he refused to answer questions, asserting his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

Danny Diaz, a RNC spokesman, contends a congressional inquiry into the New Hampshire case is unjustified: "The questions regarding the New Hampshire issue have been answered time and again. Additional activity on this front is solely for political purposes and is a questionable usage of taxpayer dollars."

In a letter to Acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler, Conyers and the subcommittee chairs, Robert C. Scott (D-VA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and Linda Sánchez (D-CA), detailed the Tobin-White House calls, the payment by the RNC of Tobin's legal fees, and then stated:

"Despite this compelling evidence of Washington involvement in the election day jamming of Democratic phone lines, however, the FBI Special Agent working this matter allegedly was instructed not to follow investigative leads back to Washington.

"In addition, the attorney for one of the phone jamming defendants has stated that he was told by a federal prosecutor that 'all decisions in this case had to be made subject to the approval of the Attorney General himself, who had to sign off on all actions in this case,' an unusual state of affairs for a criminal prosecution."

The prime mover behind the congressional inquiry is freshman Representative Paul Hodes (D-NH) who has been pressing both the House and Senate to take action.