By Thomas B. Edsall and David A Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 14, 2006
A three-year-old political scandal in New Hampshire -- where Republican operatives conspired to jam Democratic get-out-the-vote phone lines on Election Day 2002 -- has suddenly become a national headache for GOP leaders, who are being pressed to explain why one author of the scheme was repeatedly calling the White House.
A Democratic activist group, combing through evidence from a trial last year in which the former New England regional director of the Republican National Committee was convicted, uncovered 22 calls from New Hampshire officials to the White House political office on Nov. 5-6, 2002. During the same time, according to prosecutors, state GOP officials started -- and then frantically sought to stop -- a plan to have a telemarketer bombard the phone banks of Democrats and a local firefighters association that was offering voters rides to the polls.
The nuisance calls were blamed for paralyzing part of the Democratic operation during the first hours of a close-fought Senate race that Republican John E. Sununu eventually won against then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D). With the revelation of the calls, a state-level scandal has become a national issue, and a top political hand to President Bush has been pressed for answers.
Ken Mehlman, former director of the White House political office and current chairman of the Republican National Committee is fighting Democratic efforts to force him to testify under oath in a civil suit about the New Hampshire scandal. Mehlman said the calls from James Tobin -- a consultant who in 2002 led the RNC's New England effort -- were for the White House to get the latest information about a close race, which would be unexceptional on election night. He said none of the calls to him or his staff involved the phone-jamming operation.
While under no legal obligation to do so, the RNC has paid more than $2.5 million in legal fees incurred by Tobin, who in 2004 was the New England director for the Bush-Cheney campaign.
In an interview on CNN, Mehlman said the decision to pay Tobin's legal fees was made "before I was chairman -- that in this case that was going to happen based on assurances he made." Mehlman stood by the continuing payments under his chairmanship, saying "it was right to honor that decision."
The court documents describing the calls were only discovered recently by researchers at the Senate Majority Project, a Democratic group based in Washington. In addition to Tobin, two GOP operatives pleaded guilty in the case.
There are no public documents or public sworn testimony concerning the matters that were discussed in the phone calls. "They started calling the White House about 11 a.m., and didn't stop until 2 a.m.," said Christy Setzer, a Senate Majority Project spokeswoman.
Paul Twomey, of Epsom, N.H., an attorney for the Democratic Party in its civil lawsuit, said that he wants to question Mehlman and Davis to determine if the calls dealt with the phone-jamming scheme.
"You have somebody who's committing a felony, and he's calling [the White House] during the planning, the execution and when it's falling apart," Twomey said, adding that he will request records listing what outgoing calls were made from the White House during the same time. Twomey told New Hampshire reporters that the RNC's coverage of the legal fees "raises questions of who they were protecting, how high does this go and who was in on this."
Yesterday, White House spokesman Ken Lisaius declined to comment on the suit, saying "we don't comment about ongoing legal proceedings." Bryan Sierra, a spokesman for the Justice Department, which prosecuted Tobin, said, "The investigation was thorough." Sierra appeared to accept Mehlman's argument, saying that "it would not be unusual for the director of a particular region of the country to be in communication with officials of the Republican Party" on Election Day.
Kathy Sullivan, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said she is unwilling to accept Mehlman's assurances. She cited a sequence of events as the phone-jamming case unfolded starting in February 2003, in which Republican officials repeatedly changed their version of events as new evidence emerged.
Fahrenthold reported from Boston.