Saturday, June 10, 2006
Jail term served in N.H. phone plot
WASHINGTON -- For nearly a decade, Allen Raymond stood at the top ranks of Republican Party power.
He served as chief of staff to a cochairman of the Republican National Committee, supervised Republican contests in mid-Atlantic states for the RNC, and was a top official in publisher Steve Forbes's presidential campaign. He went on to earn $350,000 a year running a Republican policy group as well as a GOP phone-bank business.
But most recently, Raymond has been in prison. And for that, he blames himself, but also says he was part of a Republican political culture that emphasizes hardball tactics and polarizing voters.
Raymond, 39, has just finished serving a three-month sentence for jamming Democratic phone lines in New Hampshire during the 2002 US Senate race. The incident led to one of the biggest political scandals in the state's history, the convictions of Raymond and two top Republican officials, and a Democratic lawsuit that seeks to determine whether the White House played any role. The race was won by Senator John E. Sununu , the Republican.
In his first interview about the case, Raymond said he doesn't know anything that would suggest the White House was involved in the plan to tie up Democrats' phone lines and thereby block their get-out-the-vote effort. But he said the scheme reflects a broader culture in the Republican Party that is focused on dividing voters to win primaries and general elections. He said examples range from some recent efforts to use border-security concerns to foster anger toward immigrants to his own role arranging phone calls designed to polarize primary voters over abortion in a 2002 New Jersey Senate race.
``A lot of people look at politics and see it as the guy who wins is the guy who unifies the most people," he said. ``I would disagree. I would say the candidate who wins is the candidate who polarizes the right bloc of voters. You always want to polarize somebody."
Raymond stressed that he was making no excuses for his role in the New Hampshire case; he pleaded guilty and told the judge he had done a ``bad thing." But he said he got caught up in an ultra-aggressive atmosphere in which he initially thought the decision to jam the phones ``pushed the envelope" but was legal. He also said he had been reluctant to turn down a prominent official of the RNC, fearing that would cost him future opportunities from an organization that was becoming increasingly ruthless.
``Republicans have treated campaigns and politics as a business, and now are treating public policy as a business, looking for the types of returns that you get in business, passing legislation that has huge ramifications for business," he said. ``It is very much being monetized, and the federal government is being monetized under Republican majorities."
Raymond, raised in a liberal Democratic family, became intrigued with the Republican Party during his four years in the early 1980s at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts.
After running a successful US House campaign in 1994, Raymond was picked by then-GOP chairman Haley Barbour to become one of the party's eight regional political directors, overseeing the mid-Atlantic states. He was then hired as chief of staff to a subsequent cochairman of the Republican National Committee, Patricia Harrison. That was followed by his job as deputy political director of Forbes's 2000 presidential campaign. After Forbes lost, Raymond became executive director of the Republican Leadership Council. Around that time, he set up GOP Marketplace, which served as a middleman for telemarketing services sought by Republican campaigns.
The firm was funded with a $246,000 loan from a group of elite Republicans. One of the investors was Raymond's former boss, Barbour, who said at the time he was ``convinced that GOP Marketplace will not only be a profitable business, but will also give Republicans an edge in the 2000 election." Another investor was lobbyist Ed Rogers , who had served as executive assistant to former White House chief of staff John H. Sununu during the administration of George H.W. Bush.
The firm landed contracts worth nearly $2 million during the first two years, typically involving calls to determine where voters stood on issues and candidates. But it became involved in more aggressive tactics that drew the attention of federal prosecutors. The first sign of the questionable tactics was on Super Bowl Sunday in 2002. Raymond's firm had been hired by the campaign of James Treffinger, a New Jersey Republican. Raymond's company was asked to arrange phone calls that attacked one of Treffinger's opponents on abortion without revealing that Treffinger was paying for the calls and to make those calls during the Super Bowl. ``It was shenanigans," Raymond said. ``You put the call in at 6 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday," which was designed to irk voters who didn't want to be called away from the television. After complaints were raised, prosecutors interviewed Raymond about the matter, but he was not charged.
Ten months later, Raymond received what he called a ``highly unusual" request to jam Democratic phone lines in New Hampshire.
The idea originated with Charles McGee , who was executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, according to court records. McGee, who had served as a helicopter crew chief in the Marine Corps, testified that he learned in the military that ``if you can't communicate, you can't plan and organize," so Democrats would be hampered in their efforts to get voters to the polls if their phones were constantly busy.
But McGee didn't know who could pull it off. ``I had tried two vendors and they both had said no," he testified. So he asked for advice from James Tobin, the Northeast director of the Republican National Committee, who was in New Hampshire to help with Sununu's race against the incumbent Democratic governor, Jeanne Shaheen .
Tobin suggested hiring Raymond. Tobin had worked with Raymond at the RNC and was Raymond's boss during the Forbes campaign. Raymond said in the interview that Tobin initially called him, asking whether such a plan was feasible. ``Anything can be done," Raymond said he responded. Shortly thereafter, McGee called to set up the plan. The New Hampshire Republican Party paid $15,600 to GOP Marketplace, which in turn sent $2,500 to an Idaho company that agreed to place the computerized calls that would jam Democratic lines. GOP Marketplace pocketed $13,100 as profit.
Raymond said he presumed, based on his experience at the RNC, that Tobin had cleared the matter with the committee's legal advisers. [An RNC attorney, Robert Kelner, said Tobin did not consult committee lawyers ``in connection with any phone-jamming scheme."] Nonetheless, Raymond felt uneasy enough to seek advice from a private lawyer. He said he was told, ``I don't necessarily recommend it, but I don't see anything illegal."
By 7:30 a.m. on Election Day, the phones at five Democratic offices in New Hampshire, along with a firefighters' association office that was offering voters rides to the polls , were being jammed by a relentless series of calls that were terminated as soon as they were answered. But, according to court testimony, while the jamming campaign was underway, McGee received a complaint from a GOP official and decided to pull the plug, sending Raymond an e-mail that said: ``New Hampshire GOP. Urgent, urgent, urgent. Please halt all calls for NH project as soon as possible."
Federal law prohibits making interstate calls ``without disclosing the caller's identity and with the intent to annoy . . . or harass any person at the called number."
McGee pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven months. Tobin was found guilty and sentenced to 10 months. The RNC has spent nearly $3 million on legal expenses for Tobin. Democrats say in their civil suit that Tobin placed 115 calls to the White House between Sept. 17 and Nov. 22, 2002, suggesting that some Bush administration officials may have been told of the phone-jamming plan. Ken Mehlman, the former White House political director whose office received the calls, has said the calls were not related to phone-jamming.
Senator Sununu, who was elected by about 19,000 votes, said via e-mail that he never knew about the plot until it was reported in the media. Sununu called the phone-jamming scheme ``illegal, wrong, and just plain stupid -- and those responsible are and must be held accountable." Sununu also said he did not know that one of the investors in GOP Marketplace was his father's former executive assistant, Rogers. Raymond, too, said Sununu and the investors did not know about the phone-jamming. Barbour, now the governor of Mississippi, denied knowledge of the scheme, and Rogers declined comment.
The case could go deeper. Justice Department officials say they are still investigating leads, and the New Hampshire Democratic Party filed a civil suit requesting documents and asking to interview former White House officials who had talked with participants in the phone-jamming plan before it was carried out.
Raymond, who has switched to real estate investment, said the case cost him $500,000 in lost business and money spent on legal fees. ``Things come up where you need to push the envelope," he said of the New Hampshire case. ``The question is whether you step over the bright line. I took steps to make sure I didn't, but unfortunately that wasn't good enough and I paid a steep price."