By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006
A Democratic researcher pleaded guilty yesterday to misrepresenting herself on a Web site as Michael S. Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor and a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, and fraudulently obtaining his credit report last summer.
Under a plea agreement reached with prosecutors, the misdemeanor charge against Lauren B. Weiner, a former staff member of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, could be dropped in a year if she completes 150 hours of community service and commits no other offenses.
"I believe this is the end of the episode, and she can now get on with her life," said Whitney C. Ellerman, an attorney for Weiner.
An attorney for Steele said the lieutenant governor is considering a civil suit against Weiner, 25, and the Democratic committee to learn more about what he called "a dirty trick."
E. Mark Braden, who attended the hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, said a "statement of the offense" released yesterday contains several troubling details about the episode, including Weiner's use of a committee credit card to access Steele's report over the Internet.
The discovery process of a civil suit would allow Steele to learn more about what happened, Braden said. "I don't think the story is necessarily over," he said. "This answers some questions but not all questions. We'll have to see where we go from here. . . . This was a carefully calculated plan to steal private information."
The episode took place in July as both parties started investigating the backgrounds of candidates in Maryland's marquee races this year.
According to the prosecutor's statement, which Weiner said was accurate, she used Steele's Social Security number to access his credit report on a Web site designed to let people view their reports.
Weiner pretended that she was Steele, even creating an e-mail address -- email@example.com -- needed to obtain the report, the statement said. She also agreed to the "terms of service" on the site, which included a warning "not to impersonate another person."
According to the statement, Weiner's superiors were notified within hours of the episode, and the report was destroyed the next morning before it could be disseminated. Weiner and her boss, the committee's director of research, later resigned.
Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said it does not appear as though Weiner acted alone. "It looks like the DSCC is trying to make a scapegoat of a younger staffer," he said.
Phil Singer, a spokesman for the committee, said yesterday that the prosecutor's statement showed that "the DSCC responded to this incident in an exemplary way."
"The U.S. attorney's office also confirmed that the DSCC, as it has repeatedly said, did not use the credit report for any financial or political purpose and that Mr. Steele suffered no economic harm," Singer said. He said he believes "this matter is now closed."
Yesterday's hearing was delayed briefly after Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola disclosed from the bench that "Michael Steele is a friend of mine." Facciola said he and Steele are members of the John Carroll Society, an association of Catholic laypeople, and he offered to recuse himself.
Neither Weiner nor the U.S. attorney's office objected to Facciola continuing to handle the case.
Weiner was instructed to return to Facciola's courtroom for sentencing a year from now. Ellerman, her attorney, said he expects the charge to be dropped then.
In the meantime, Facciola told Weiner that she will need the court's permission before leaving the Washington area for more than 48 hours and is expected to remain a District resident.