By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008
The day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the D.C. gun ban, leading gun control advocates dialed into a nationwide conference call to coordinate how the movement should frame its reaction to the media.
Listening in was Mary McFate, a longtime board member of a Pennsylvania gun safety group. Although McFate had been a familiar face in gun safety circles for more than a decade, the other activists on the line were unaware that she once had a career as a corporate spy infiltrating activist groups.
Now, three gun safety groups have expelled McFate, 62, on suspicion that she was actually a longtime informant for the National Rifle Association or other gun rights organizations. McFate and the NRA are not commenting, and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is demanding that the NRA address the allegations.
The gun control groups' suspicions arose after a July report in Mother Jones magazine revealing that McFate was once known as Mary Lou Sapone, whose career as a corporate spy is well documented and undisputed.
A civil court deposition includes testimony that McFate had the NRA as a client as far back as 1999 but does not detail the work she did for it. A year later, McFate was a volunteer coordinator of the gun control movement's Million Mom March.
In the 1980s, when she used her married name, Sapone, McFate worked undercover in animal rights circles, gathering intelligence for a medical supply company in Connecticut. A decade later, she was in management, serving as the handler for an operative who infiltrated an environmental group protesting a chemical spill in Louisiana.
"The more we learn about Mary McFate and her actions, the more reason for concern that she deceived gun violence victims and gun safety advocates," Lautenberg, a longtime foe of the NRA, said in a statement. "If the NRA has nothing to hide, it should come forward and answer our questions about this alleged spy. Its silence thus far has been deafening."
The assertion that McFate was a corporate spy shocked members of the tightly knit gun control movement, many of whom considered her a friend.
"This is somebody I've been with dozens and dozens of times," said Bryan Miller, executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey. "We've walked the halls of Congress together. . . . It's really hurtful."
In 2005, McFate unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the board of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the nation's most influential gun safety groups. Years earlier, she was named as an unpaid board member of Ceasefire Pennsylvania, which advocates for stricter rules for handgun sales and other measures.
Her spot on that group's board allowed her to participate in two national coalitions, the Freedom States Alliance and States United to Prevent Gun Violence. McFate became the legislative director for States United and was in charge of lobbying Congress. "She seemed to feel so strongly about it," said Barbara Hohlt, executive director of States United. "She was one of us."
From her multiple perches, McFate had access to strategic discussions on which issues or legislative positions would be pushed and which lawmakers and states would be targeted when and how. She was privy to the movement's public relations strategies and its reactions to NRA activities.
"Mary was very involved with everything: telephone calls, conferences, meetings -- everything," Hohlt said. "In our group, there are not a lot of secrets. But we don't expect everything we say openly is going to be passed along to the NRA."
On that June day the D.C. case was decided, McFate was among the several dozen advocates who listened as the lead attorney for the District gave his interpretation of the ruling and suggested how state groups might frame their reactions to the media, Hohlt said.
"A call like that would definitely be intended to be an internal call," said Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Legal Community Against Violence in San Francisco, which hosted the call.
According to Hohlt and Miller, McFate obtained a draft copy of an amicus brief prepared by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence in the D.C. case several days before the brief was filed.
McFate told a worker with the group that she might be able to enlist other supporters if she had an advance copy, Miller said. Given that such briefs are generally filed early enough that there is ample time for a response, a draft might be of questionable value to a courtroom opponent.
McFate's alleged connection to the NRA was described in the 2003 deposition of Timothy Ward, a former investigator with a now-defunct Maryland private detective firm, Beckett Brown Intl., which used McFate as a subcontractor. The deposition came amid a contract dispute involving company investor John C. Dodd III, who gave The Washington Post access to court and company documents.
In the deposition, Ward was quizzed about how his firm arranged a security contract with the NRA. Ward said McFate had the gun rights group as a client and in 1999 introduced him to her contact there, Patrick O'Malley. At the time, O'Malley was deputy executive director of the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA's lobbying unit. Ward did not discuss the nature of McFate's work.
O'Malley, who has since left the NRA, did not respond to messages seeking comment. Ward did not respond to a message seeking comment on McFate and the NRA.
McFate's work as an operative elsewhere is well documented. In 1989, the U.S. Surgical Corp. acknowledged that it had used McFate and another undercover operative to keep tabs on animal rights activists. The practice was necessary, the Connecticut company said, because of what it considered fanaticism among activists protesting the company's use of dogs in surgical training.
After McFate's role was made public, some activists said they had long been suspicious of her, given her persistent questions, her tendency to take voluminous notes and her support of violent action.
Fran Trutt, an activist convicted of trying to plant a bomb in the company parking lot in 1988, said at the time that McFate and other operatives encouraged her efforts and gave her money for bombmaking supplies. McFate denied that.
In the late 1990s, as a subcontractor for Beckett Brown, McFate recruited, hired and trained a local resident to infiltrate groups protesting the chemical spill in Louisiana, according to BBI documents. In a 1998 memo to Ward, McFate described her management technique, saying her operatives were trained to seek documents and to "discover plans for illegal activity and civil disobedience, discover support from national groups, and generally discover 'what they know.' "
Ward has said BBI did nothing illegal and declined to comment on methods or investigations, citing what he said were confidentiality rules under Maryland law.
As a gun safety activist, McFate appeared to encourage infighting, said Miller of Ceasefire New Jersey. When McFate became involved with Ceasefire Pennsylvania in 2001, she was "absolutely determined to destroy" a similar group, Pennsylvanians Against Handgun Violence, he said.
"She was on that issue like a bulldog grabbing the bottom of your pants leg," he said.
She would look for activists who were not getting along, press them for details and then slyly share the information until fights broke out, he said.
More recently, Miller said, McFate had become critical of the Brady Campaign, accusing the group of monopolizing the movement's resources and taking credit for others' work. "Every chance she got, she was running down the Brady Campaign to the rest of us in the movement," he said.
In hindsight, Miller and others say there were warning signs: McFate rarely spoke of her personal life; she seemed wealthy but did not donate to gun control groups or their favored political candidates; and her activism spanned several states and multiple organizations.
Still, they said, they viewed her as merely quirky. "She was always there," Miller said. "That's the thing about Mary."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.