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Accounts differ as Sarah Palin e-mail hacking case is sent to court in Knoxville

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010; C01

KNOXVILLE, TENN. -- Even without Sarah, the First Dude and Bristol, the soap opera playing to packed courtrooms here wouldn't lack for characters.

There's the admittedly mischievous college student, affecting an I-don't-give-a-darn 'tude with ankle socks exposing bare legs under the sober gray suit. There's the military-dentist mom and the chagrined father, who also happens to be a Democrat and a longtime elected member of the state's legislature. Then there are the Democratic administration's prosecutors arguing on behalf of Sarah Palin, the vice presidential pick on the losing Republican ticket.

They've all been thrown together by a case of high-tech shenanigans, a ghost of the election past. In September 2008, less than two months before the presidential election, Palin's personal e-mail account -- gov.palin@yahoo.com -- was hacked, exploding into a news-dominating distraction for a Republican campaign that already had plenty to worry about.

Friday morning, Palin, entourage and security detail in tow, swung through here to confront her interloper, David Kernell -- a mop-haired 22-year-old redhead with long sideburns and a sly smile -- who could get 50 years in prison if convicted. Gawkers, drawn by Palin's celebrity sheen, pressed into the magnolia-lined courthouse square to catch a glimpse of the darling of the "tea party" movement. "Cool," gushed Scott Sullivan, who works at a nearby mortgage company. "She's really skinny!"

Of course, Kernell, an economics major before leaving school to concentrate on his defense, hasn't felt charmed by Palin. He told WMC-TV of Memphis that "she's not my type."

Kernell, who was 20 at the time of the breach, doesn't deny cracking Palin's account and changing the password to something dear to every dorm resident's heart: "popcorn." But he has said it was just "a college prank." Prosecutors argue that he was out to torpedo her candidacy and that he committed a crime by tapping in and posting personal information, such as e-mails and contact lists, on the Internet, using the screen name "rubico."

Either way, the case comes at a time when the FBI is cracking down on cybercrime, which it ranks as one of its top three priorities. The Palin case is unusual because 95 percent of federal criminal cases end in pleas and don't go to trial; defense attorneys declined to say whether a plea deal was discussed for Kernell.

Palin was all smiles as she sashayed into Courtroom 4 at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Federal Courthouse, a neo-Georgian, red-brick gem that the federal government bought cheap from private-schools magnate Chris Whittle when things went bad for his telecom empire. The courthouse sits in downtown Knoxville, just down the road from the University of Tennessee football stadium, which holds 102,000 fans in a city of 170,000 residents.

Accompanied by her husband, Todd -- the officially erstwhile, but perhaps forevermore, "First Dude" -- Sarah Palin wore her signature rimless, rectangular glasses, a black skirt suit with a shimmery American flag lapel pin, pumps and black nylons. As she entered the courtroom, she walked past Kernell's mother, Lt. Col. Lillian Landrigan, a military dentist who sat in the front row with a wrap over her knees because of the overly exuberant air conditioning.

E-mails exposed

On the witness stand, Palin smiled demurely and assented when Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Weddle asked whether he could call her "Governor Palin." Within minutes, the former Alaskan governor was recounting the moment in September 2008 when she learned on the television news in her Michigan hotel room that her e-mail contact list and countless personal e-mails and photos were floating for all to see in cyberspace. Secret Service agents, scooped by TV news reporters, burst in minutes later to say they had "bad news," she said.

In her memoir, "Going Rogue," Palin wondered "what kind of a creep" would hack her account, which was set up by a state employee at her request and which she accessed on a "red BlackBerry." On Friday, she refrained from name-calling, but lamented over and over as prosecutors displayed what became public. Jurors saw e-mails from her mother and mother-in-law; her sister, Heather; her daughters, Willow and Bristol. One e-mail referenced "Big Momma."

"I'd be 'Big Momma,' " Palin said brightly, sticking out her chin the way she does, and eliciting smiles in the jury box and audience of 200 spectators.

A 'huge disruption'

The prosecution -- a local assistant U.S. attorney and two attorneys from the Justice Department -- want to prove that Palin suffered professionally and personally. Answering their questions, Palin said the hacking "caused a huge disruption in the campaign, in this federal election." The incident knocked the campaign "off-message," she said, forcing her to parry questions from reporters who assumed her personal account would hold "horrible e-mails" that might reveal she or her husband were having affairs, that she was under indictment or that her infant son, Trig, was not her biological child.

Palin also recounted her frustration that family members were asked by the Secret Service and the campaign to give up their cellphones, making communication difficult during the campaign. "A mama wants to be there to help her kids," Palin told jurors.

Bristol -- whose contact information was exposed -- testified earlier in the week that she was frightened by a phone call from young men who claimed to be at her front door. "We live in the middle of nowhere Alaska . . . in the middle of the woods," she told jurors. Her mother added sardonically Friday, during a break, that "Bristol was pregnant at the time -- in case you missed it on the front page of the National Enquirer."

Defense attorneys sought to attack the notion that Bristol would have been fearful, getting Palin to admit that her home was guarded by the Secret Service at the time. Although, she noted, agents were "not in the house, but on the property down the driveway."

The hacker's background

The other mother in the courtroom didn't speak to the media, even asking a reporter sitting behind her in an unrestricted area to move to another seat. But Landrigan has been at her son's side each day as they picked their way through swarming photographers. Her son glanced back at her frequently.

Kernell's father, Mike Kernell, has played a less public role in the proceedings. The elder Kernell, who lives in Memphis, has been a member of the Tennessee legislature since 1974. Defense attorneys have emphasized that Mike Kernell is not implicated, but in the early days of the investigation, it fell to him to confirm that his son was a suspect.

David Kernell is charged with identity theft, wire fraud, obstruction of justice for allegedly deleting references to the hacking from his computer, and unauthorized access of a personal computer. In October 2008, he was brought into court in handcuffs and ankle shackles to plead not guilty to hacking into the account, before being released on bond. He is expected to take the stand in his own defense. He was indicted during the Bush administration, but the trial is being held under the Obama administration, whose Justice Department was recently criticized by the inspector general for not doing enough to combat identity theft.

Prosecutors said that Kernell bragged about hacking Palin's account and that he showed jurors online exchanges that seem to suggest Kernell was goaded by an unidentified Internet chatter who wrote: "At least give someone else the password and let them ruin her life." Two or three minutes later, Kernell posted the password, according to the testimony Friday of an FBI computer forensics expert who examined Kernell's laptop. While chatting online, Kernell said he hadn't "found anything incriminating," prosecutors said.

Defense attorneys paint him sympathetically, saying he cried when contacted by the FBI.

'It wasn't a secret to me'

Kernell originally tapped in, prosecutors said, by answering a security question about where the Palins met. Defense attorney Wade Davies, trying to make the point that the answer to that question was easy to get, asked Palin: "It wasn't a secret that you and Todd met at Wasilla High School?"

Palin, who testified for 44 minutes, smiled and shot back: "It wasn't a secret to me!" More chuckles.

Kernell did not seem amused. Certainly, it has been no easy week. Not only has an international celebrity testified against him, but a former college roommate also took the stand, bolstering the prosecution's allegations about political motivations by saying Kernell "definitely talked about how he didn't believe in what [Palin] wanted to do."

Still, there's an undercurrent of sentiment here that maybe the kid should get a break. Jon LaFoe, a Knoxville cab driver, said he'd "hate to see them ruin a young man's life, a life that could be productive, by sending him away to prison for a lengthy sentence. What a waste." And more than one reporter at the courthouse pressed Palin about whether the possible punishment of Kernell is "too harsh."

But, in the hallway, after her testimony, Palin said: "I think there need to be consequences for bad behavior."

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