By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Federal prosecutors have decided to bring charges against a Democratic researcher accused of fraudulently obtaining a credit report on Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, now a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.
Lauren B. Weiner, who has since resigned from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, will be charged with obtaining the report without authorization, according to a letter sent to Steele by the U.S. attorney's office in the District.
A copy of the March 8 letter, which notified Steele that he is considered a victim in the case, was obtained by The Washington Post yesterday.
The episode, which happened last July, came as both parties started digging into the backgrounds of opposing candidates for one of Maryland's marquee races this year, the contest to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D). Opposition research is typical in contested statewide races, but it is illegal under federal law to obtain a credit report under false pretenses.
Whitney C. Ellerman, an attorney for Weiner, said his client plans to plead guilty to a misdemeanor under an agreement with prosecutors that could result in the charge being dismissed in a year.
"She basically made a mistake, and she is accepting responsibility for that mistake," Ellerman said. "She wants to get on with her life."
Ellerman said Steele's credit report was destroyed and not disseminated to anyone.
Republicans seized on the incident when it came to light in the fall as evidence of how seriously Democrats are taking Steele's candidacy, an idea they sought to further yesterday.
"This sort of dumpster diving shows Marylanders that Democrats are willing to engage in this campaign from the gutter," said Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington, which was heavily involved in recruiting Steele to run. "It's unfortunate that the lieutenant governor and his family have had to endure it."
Steele declined to comment directly, referring questions to his campaign spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers, who characterized the episode as "partisan politics at its worst."
Personal finances were considered fertile territory for researchers looking into Steele, who acknowledged financial difficulties when he ran for statewide office in 2002. Sources familiar with the episode said Steele's credit report was obtained with the use of his Social Security number, which was found on a public court document.
Weiner and Katie Barge, then the DSCC's director of research, resigned after their superiors learned of the incident, which drew the FBI's attention. The DSCC is the arm of the national Democratic Party that works to elect U.S. senators.
William Lawler, an attorney for Barge, said it is his understanding from prosecutors that neither his client nor the DSCC will be charged.
"We're pleased to see this matter come to a conclusion," DSCC spokesman Phil Singer said last night. "Our thoughts are with Lauren. She is a fine person who made a mistake."
Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, would not comment on the case or why the office is apparently not charging Barge, who was Weiner's boss at the DSCC.
The letter to Steele says Weiner "will be charged with accessing a computer without authorization and thereby obtaining information contained in a file from a consumer reporting agency on a consumer." The act is a violation of a section of the U.S. Code titled "Fraud in Connection With Computers." The penalty could range from probation to six months in prison.
The letter to Steele says prosecutors are negotiating a plea agreement under which Weiner would enter a guilty plea in exchange for a deferred prosecution. That could result in the dismissal of the charge in a year if Weiner does not violate the law during that period and performs 150 hours of community service, according to the letter.