Monday, April 10, 2006
By LARRY MARGASAK, Associated Press WriterMon Apr 10, 4:55 PM ET
Key figures in a phone-jamming scheme designed to keep New Hampshire Democrats from voting in 2002 had regular contact with the White House and Republican Party as the plan was unfolding, phone records introduced in criminal court show.
The records show that Bush campaign operative James Tobin, who recently was convicted in the case, made two dozen calls to the White House within a three-day period around Election Day 2002 — as the phone jamming operation was finalized, carried out and then abruptly shut down.
The national Republican Party, which paid millions in legal bills to defend Tobin, says the contacts involved routine election business and that it was "preposterous" to suggest the calls involved phone jamming.
The Justice Department has secured three convictions in the case but hasn't accused any White House or national Republican officials of wrongdoing, nor made any allegations suggesting party officials outside New Hampshire were involved. The phone records of calls to the White House were exhibits in Tobin's trial but prosecutors did not make them part of their case.
Democrats plan to ask a federal judge Tuesday to order GOP and White House officials to answer questions about the phone jamming in a civil lawsuit alleging voter fraud.
Repeated hang-up calls that jammed telephone lines at a Democratic get-out-the-vote center occurred in a Senate race in which Republican John Sununu defeated Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, 51 percent to 46 percent, on Nov. 5, 2002.
Besides the conviction of Tobin, the Republicans' New England regional director, prosecutors negotiated two plea bargains: one with a New Hampshire Republican Party official and another with the owner of a telemarketing firm involved in the scheme. The owner of the subcontractor firm whose employees made the hang-up calls is under indictment.
The phone records show that most calls to the White House were from Tobin, who became President Bush's presidential campaign chairman for the New England region in 2004. Other calls from New Hampshire senatorial campaign offices to the White House could have been made by a number of people.
A GOP campaign consultant in 2002, Jayne Millerick, made a 17-minute call to the White House on Election Day, but said in an interview she did not recall the subject. Millerick, who later became the New Hampshire GOP chairwoman, said in an interview she did not learn of the jamming until after the election.
A Democratic analysis of phone records introduced at Tobin's criminal trial show he made 115 outgoing calls — mostly to the same number in the White House political affairs office — between Sept. 17 and Nov. 22, 2002. Two dozen of the calls were made from 9:28 a.m. the day before the election through 2:17 a.m. the night after the voting.
There also were other calls between Republican officials during the period that the scheme was hatched and canceled.
Prosecutors did not need the White House calls to convict Tobin and negotiate the two guilty pleas.
Whatever the reason for not using the White House records, prosecutors "tried a very narrow case," said Paul Twomey, who represented the Democratic Party in the criminal and civil cases. The Justice Department did not say why the White House records were not used.
The Democrats said in their civil case motion that they were entitled to know the purpose of the calls to government offices "at the time of the planning and implementation of the phone-jamming conspiracy ... and the timing of the phone calls made by Mr. Tobin on Election Day."
While national Republican officials have said they deplore such operations, the Republican National Committee said it paid for Tobin's defense because he is a longtime supporter and told officials he had committed no crime.
By Nov. 4, 2002, the Monday before the election, an Idaho firm was hired to make the hang-up calls. The Republican state chairman at the time, John Dowd, said in an interview he learned of the scheme that day and tried to stop it.
Dowd, who blamed an aide for devising the scheme without his knowledge, contended that the jamming began on Election Day despite his efforts. A police report confirmed the Manchester Professional Fire Fighters Association reported the hang-up calls began about 7:15 a.m. and continued for about two hours. The association was offering rides to the polls.
Virtually all the calls to the White House went to the same number, which currently rings inside the political affairs office. In 2002, White House political affairs was led by now-RNC chairman Ken Mehlman. The White House declined to say which staffer was assigned that phone number in 2002.
"As policy, we don't discuss ongoing legal proceedings within the courts," White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said.
Robert Kelner, a Washington lawyer representing the Republican National Committee in the civil litigation, said there was no connection between the phone jamming operation and the calls to the White House and party officials.
"On Election Day, as anybody involved in politics knows, there's a tremendous volume of calls between political operatives in the field and political operatives in Washington," Kelner said.
"If all you're pointing out is calls between Republican National Committee regional political officials and the White House political office on Election Day, you're pointing out nothing that hasn't been true on every Election Day," he said.