By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
In October 2002, Charles McGee, executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, was mailed a Democratic flier that offered Election Day rides to the polls. The circular listed telephone numbers of party offices in five cities and towns.
"I paused and thought to myself, I might find out -- I might think of an idea of disrupting those operations," McGee later testified. A Marine Corps veteran, McGee approached the situation like a combat operation: "Eventually the idea coalesced into disrupting their phone lines . . . [it's] military common sense that if you can't communicate, you can't plan and organize."
When voting began Nov. 5, McGee's plan worked like a charm. For two crucial hours, an Idaho telecommunications firm tied up Democratic and union phone lines, bringing their get-out-the-vote plans to a halt. The effort helped John E. Sununu (R) win his Senate seat by 51 to 47 percent, a 19,151-vote margin.
Well before Election Day ended, however, the scheme began to implode -- in ways that still echo nearly four years later.
McGee and two other participants -- Republican National Committee regional political director James Tobin and GOP consultant Allen Raymond-- have been found guilty of criminally violating federal communications law. Tobin will be sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Concord, N.H.
The New Hampshire Republican Party, burden by legal bills, is virtually broke, with $733.60 in its federal and state accounts.
The Republican National Committee, in turn, has paid $3 million in legal fees in criminal and civil cases growing out of the controversy. The RNC has paid at least $2.8 million to Williams & Connolly and other firms for Tobin's defense, and about $150,000 to Covington & Burling to defend the RNC in a civil suit brought by the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
The RNC's legal fees exceed the $2.4 million spent by Sununu, the winner of the U.S. Senate race.
Most tantalizingly to Democrats, evidence filed in Tobin's trial in December shows 22 phone calls from Tobin to the White House between 11:20 a.m. Election Day, two hours after the phone jamming was shut down, and 2:17 a.m. the next day, four hours after the outcome of the election was announced.
Democrats charge that these phone calls and the RNC payment of Tobin's legal fees suggest possible White House involvement or knowledge of the phone jamming plan. RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman was at the time serving as White House political director. He said he had no involvement or awareness of Tobin's scheme, and that it was not unusual that there would be lots of calls back and forth to the White House political office from a crucial state.
But the case has drawn complaints even from Republicans. By covering Tobin's legal fees, "the GOP appears to sanction and institutionalize corruption within the party," Craig Shirley, of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, recently wrote in a commentary published by The Washington Post.
The phone-blocking occurred from 7 to 9 a.m. the crucial morning hours when many voters want to go to the polls before work.
"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 union 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."
The local police began to investigate. Realizing that what seemed at first like a clever tactic could have criminal implications, state Republican officials hurriedly called their telecommunications consultants to stop the jamming, according to court testimony. But the case was soon turned over to the FBI and the Justice Department because the allegations involved violations of federal telecommunications law.
Tobin, a longtime GOP operative, was later appointed New England chairman for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, but resigned when he became a subject of the federal criminal inquiry. On Dec. 15, 2005, Tobin, 45, was convicted of two counts of telephone harassment.
Former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie decided to pay Tobin's legal fees. "He was accused of doing something in his capacity as an RNC consultant, and we believed him to be innocent," Gillespie said. While the RNC had no contractual obligation, "it's the custom, not written anywhere, that you covered your people," Gillespie said.
Gillespie said he informed the White House, but did not seek formal approval, before authorizing the payments. Mehlman said that under his chairmanship, consulting contracts now explicitly declare that independent contractors must be prepared to pay their own legal costs in civil and criminal cases.
In a pre-sentencing memo, federal prosecutors are seeking a prison term of 18 to 24 months for Tobin. "The 2002 U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire was hotly contested, and one of the main goals of the Republican Party was to retain that Senate seat," they wrote. "Overcome by his desire for success in the election, Tobin exercised his considerable authority to make the phone jamming scheme succeed, rather than to stop it."
Tobin's lawyers countered that he has suffered enough: "Mr. Tobin is a man with high ethical standards and a deep love for his family and community. Seeing his reputation destroyed, his family publicly humiliated and a profession [politics] he loves made unavailable to him has caused him great pain."