Robocall investigation ends with no charges

February 26, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |

A long-awaited state investigation into an attack robocall in the last Washington County Commissioners election has ended without criminal charges, according to the local leaders of both major political parties.

Elizabeth Paul, chairwoman of the Washington County Democratic Central Committee, and Randy Buchman, chairman of the Washington County Republican Central Committee, each confirmed hearing that conclusion from the Office of the State Prosecutor more than a week ago.

Offering the most detailed public account yet, Buchman said Friday that the robocall attacking Democrat Kristin B. Aleshire was the result of a miscommunication involving a political consultant.

However, the prosecutor's office won't confirm or deny the outcome or even the investigation itself.

"The policy of this office is if it is not a public record, we do not comment," said James I. Cabezas, the office's chief investigator.

On Nov. 8, Paul asked the state attorney general to investigate the robocall against Aleshire, who was seeking a second term, particularly if it violated election law. The complaint was forwarded to the state prosecutor.

The robocall went out Nov. 1, a day before the election. It attacked Aleshire's supposed positions on identity theft, a Frederick County incinerator project and his treatment of citizens and businesses, but had no specifics.

Although the message indicated the Republican Central Committee paid for it, the committee has denied that.

Under state law, misuse of an "authority" line — a legally required disclosure of who or what group paid for an election ad — is a misdemeanor.

Aleshire has called the vague allegations "misleading," but said the call didn't cause his loss to five Republicans. He didn't join Paul in her complaint.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, who has acknowledged being part of early discussions of anti-Aleshire robocall, has said "a series of unfortunate mistakes" led to the authority line being misused.

Vic Gresham of Conquest Communications Group in Richmond, Va., said in November that the Republican Central Committee hired his company to place the call, but ignored numerous follow-up phone calls and e-mails for more information.

Finally, on Nov. 30, Broc Johnson of Conquest wrote in an e-mail: "No disrespect intended to you personally, but we will not comment on this issue. Best wishes for a nice day."

The Republican Central Committee used Conquest for a separate robocall, but its public campaign finance records don't show a payment for the anti-Aleshire call, backing the committee's claim that it wasn't involved.

'Wrong assumptions'

Buchman said Shank and county commissioner candidates Ruth Anne Callaham and John F. Barr were among those who talked about GOP election strategy.

Ideas for ammunition against Aleshire, the lone Democrat in the race, emerged from those discussions.

A campaign consultant who previously worked with Conquest took those notes and drafted a robocall script for the company to use, Buchman said.

The company sent a confirmation e-mail to Paula Lampton, the GOP committee chairwoman at the time, saying the anti-Aleshire call would be done unless she indicated otherwise, Buchman said.

Lampton didn't see or recognize the e-mail and didn't respond, so the call went ahead as the consultant requested, Buchman said.

In a written summary he planned to release in early March, Buchman referred to "a passive communications company affirmation process" as part of the breakdown.

"The presumption was that the committee supported it," Buchman said Friday.

Lampton didn't return a phone message Friday, but has said she and the committee weren't part of plans for or execution of the call.

Buchman blamed "a series of wrong assumptions and errors."

Questions remain

While a state investigation was possible, Republicans have been reluctant to say much beyond brief denial statements.

Buchman said he hopes his new summary helps clear up the matter.

Still, no one is publicly identifying the consultant. Buchman said he learned the name, but doesn't know who the person is.

Callaham said Friday that the end of the investigation is good news. Commenting further "would just be unkind," she said.

"To this day, I have no idea of who hired or committed the information to the advertising company," Barr said Friday.

Previously, Callaham has said she heard about the proposed call ahead of time; someone approached her about having a woman's voice on the message, but she declined.

Barr has said he was part of general talks about a GOP campaign effort, but didn't know it would lead to an attack robocall, which he philosophically opposes.

Shank has said he was in on early discussion of an anti-Aleshire robocall, but left to focus on his own campaign when Donald F. Munson waged a late write-in campaign against him.

Shank also has said he told GOP committee members the full story and that it was up to others to "come forward and explain their involvement, and they know who they are."

The prosecutor's office's decision that there was no crime "should conclusively resolve this issue once and for all," Shank said recently.

Paul said the prosecutor's office gave her a summary similar to Buchman's — someone familiar with Conquest e-mailed a robocall script, and the company failed to get confirmation from the committee before going ahead with it.

Even if there was no crime, the secrecy shrouding the incident looks bad, she said.

"I'm disappointed," Paul said. "Why not just come out and say it? Others are protecting the person. That adds a level of dishonesty to it."

"It was a sleazy thing at the last minute to a respected candidate," she added.

In his statement, Buchman wrote that "reveling in the successes of the last election was significantly dampened by this frustrating robocall incident. It is one thing to be besmirched by your own foolish act or decision, but to have it fall upon you by events entirely outside your control is irritating in the extreme!"

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