Blogger Says He Was Told of Indictments

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 2, 2007

A Northern Virginia political blogger said yesterday that he was tipped off weeks ago by a Republican Party insider that a Loudoun County grand jury -- whose activities are supposed to be secret -- was about to indict a state Senate candidate on charges of campaign finance violations.

Ben Tribbett, the main voice behind the Not Larry Sabato political blog, said in an interview that Shaun Kenney, spokesman for the Virginia Republican Party, volunteered the information about GOP hopeful Mark D. Tate during a phone call that Tribbett made about an unrelated subject. Tribbett produced a copy of a phone bill verifying the call.

"[Kenney] said, 'By the way, did you know Mark Tate was going to be indicted?' And he gave me the date," said Tribbett, a Democratic activist whose freewheeling blog style has upset many politicians in both parties.

On May 21, three weeks before the June 12 primary, the grand jury indicted Tate on two counts of election fraud and nine counts of perjury in a case that has deepened fissures in the party and raised questions about whether it can maintain its majority in the state Senate.

Kenney denied that he told Tribbett about the impending legal action. The blogger had contacted Kenney about that time to check out rumors that party insiders were pressuring Tate to step out of the race, Kenney said. Kenney said he "stonewalled" Tribbett, whom he accused of having a personal beef.

"It's not true," Kenney said of Tribbett's recollection. "It's nothing factual, and he has a history of just not being honest. . . . I'm more than happy to let my reputation stand up to his."

Tate and his opponent, Jill Holtzman Vogel, will face off in the primary to replace retiring Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who represents a wide swath of rural Northern Virginia that includes parts of Loudoun and Fauquier counties. The winner will take on Democrat Karen Schultz in the Nov. 6 general election.

The allegations add another layer of intrigue to the case because of its timing and because Holtzman Vogel supporters were instrumental in pushing through the indictments. It was a volunteer for her campaign who first took the case to Loudoun Commonwealth's Attorney James E. Plowman. Plowman is a Holtzman Vogel supporter. Holtzman Vogel was named chief counsel of the Republican National Committee in 2004, when the party chairman was Ed Gillespie. Gillespie now heads the Virginia GOP, and Kenney works for him.

In April, Plowman asked for a special prosecutor to be appointed in the case because of his conflict of interest.

Tate and others have also questioned why party insiders -- including Gillespie -- seemed to have prior knowledge of the investigation. More than three weeks before the grand jury was to decide, Gillespie called Tate and asked him to consider dropping out, Tate said.

"He talked to me about rumors he had heard and what's best for the party," Tate said.

Kenney, speaking for Gillespie, confirmed that Gillespie called Tate to discuss the campaign about that time but said that it was a private conversation and declined to confirm Tate's account.

A day later, the Virginia Conservative Action political action committee, which has endorsed Holtzman Vogel, reported on its blog that Tate is "under intense criminal investigation for serious campaign finance fraud."

This week, Tate's attorney filed a motion to have the indictments thrown out because of Plowman's involvement, also alleging in the motion that news of the indictments was illegally leaked.

This morning, state party officials are meeting in Richmond to decide what action, if any, to take against Tate. They will decide based on a new policy covering indicted party members that was made final May 3, a day after Tribbett says he was told of the impending charges against Tate.

Kenney said that the timing is coincidental and that the new policy was developed in response to previous scandals.

Tribbett said he decided to go public about his private discussions with Kenney because he thinks he might be called on to testify in Tate's trial.

"This is dealing with a man that may go to prison," Tribbett said. "I'm not going to sit back when a key part of his defense is this is a political prosecution."

The name of Tribbett's blog, Not Larry Sabato, is a reference to a political science professor at the University of Virginia. Sabato has no affiliation with the blog.

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