By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
While I don’t agree with our President’s absurd assertion that rocks thrown by protesters should be treated as firearms by U.S. Troops at the Mexican border, rocks can be a pretty dangerous thing. I’m not talking about physical stones and pebbles, but the kinds of verbal rocks and accusations that candidates throw at each other.
Dangerous because while you think the stones you’re throwing are successfully hurting your opponent, they are looking around for an even bigger one to lob back.
A great example of this is starting to hit a crescendo in the 46th state Senatorial District race between incumbent Republican Camera Bartolotta and Democrat James Craig. The story involves alleged campaign signature fraud on the part of members of James’ campaign staff (not Craig himself) and even more serious allegations that Bartolotta may have used taxpayer-funded resources for campaign purposes. Here’s how it all started according to a story by The Beaver County Times:
When he filed to run for the senate seat, Craig submitted 1,200 signatures (he needed 500). Some of those signatures were called into question because they appeared to be in the same handwriting. In particular, were signatures obtained in the Aliquippa area. Bartolotta told the Times that she went door to door this past summer and found several people who said they did not sign Craig’s petition. Some were pretty steamed about the whole thing: “I expect Republicans to do that, not Democrats,” Rochelle Farmerie, who said the name on the petition wasn’t hers, told the Times. The petitions were circulated by Craig’s former campaign manager, Kierran Young, as well as Young’s mother and brother. Bartolotta also had the documents checked by a handwriting expert who said about 42o signatures were in the handwriting of a small group of people.
The matter is now being investigated by Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier and Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo. Chardo because that where the petition was filed. Craig met with investigators earlier this week and his attorney Phil DiLucente says his client was interviewed as a witness, not a suspect and was told he was not the target of the investigation. While the DA ( a Republican, by the way, just sayin’) wouldn’t confirm that claim. But according to the Post Gazette, Lozier told them that no decision has been made on charges for anyone and that only the person who collects the signatures is criminally responsible unless the candidate knowingly submitted false signatures.
But, as that continues, an interesting story was released this morning by politics website, The Goose in the Gallows. On background, Goose is a site run by former state Rep. Jesse White. For those that don’t know, A few years back it was discovered that White had a whole team of people flooding newspaper comment section and social media accounts that espoused support for White or antagonized against issues White was against. The only problem is, there was no team. It was just Jesse. He lost his legislative career and surrendered his law license. He now runs this site which, admittedly, comes from a left-wing point of view.I bring this up, not to take a potshot at White, but because it’s not a secret. White took responsibility for it and I wanted to take the bat out of the hands of people who will try to use it to discredit this piece.
It was co-written by Amanda Gillooly, a reporter that I don’t know well, but whose work I respect. (Full disclosure, I had a chance to hire her a few years back and sort of regret that I didn’t!)
In the story, Gillooly and White lay out reporting that contends that Bartolotta’s campaign was collecting signatures through her state-funded website and then used those address to solicit volunteers and donations. They write:
On June 11, 2018, Jacob Redfern visited Bartolotta’s official taxpayer‐funded website and signed up for notifications about future telephone town hall meetings hosted by the first‐term senator.Redfern had been recently hired by James Craig, the Democratic nominee who would be squaring off against Bartolotta in the 2018 midterm election on November 6.
By signing up for notifications about these telephone town halls, Redfern’s intent was clear: To conduct the time‐honored political tradition of basic opposition research.
Redfern, who provided Goose in the Gallows with an affidavit signed under penalty of perjury, created a brand new Gmail account — email@example.com — and signed up for Bartolotta’s telephone town halls within moments of its creation.
Redfern signed up for townhall updates and received a couple of automatic responses from the state-funded site, acknowledging his registration. According to the story:
Then, on July 6, 2018, Jacob Redfern received an email at his “clean” firstname.lastname@example.org address. The correspondence was sent from the address email@example.com and featured a disclaimer at the bottom claiming it had been paid for by “Camera for Senate.” The content of the email, which was signed by political campaign manager Haley Bova, was an explicit solicitation seeking volunteers and political campaign donations. Then, on Aug. 16, 2018, Redfern received another email from the Bartolotta campaign, which was again signed by Bova. This email, titled, “Help the #CameraCrew reach our August goals,” was composed of a similar solicitation for fundraising and volunteers. A third email from the Bartolotta for Senate campaign arrived in Redfern’s inbox on Oct. 1, 2018, again signed by campaign manager Bova. The title of this email was “36 days away” — an explicit reference to the Nov. 6 midterm election. This email also contains an allegation by Bartolotta’s campaign that opponent James Craig was under active criminal investigation over an issue regarding his nominating petitions.
You can and should read the entire story on The Goose, which includes the emails in question. The story then looks at how this may all be tied to a contract entered into for telephone town hall services that originated with the State Senate Republican Caucus. I reached out to Bartolotta’s campaign through social media accounts rather than the email form on her website. At least one of those messages was seen, according to the site.
This is a big race for current and future attempts to flip the state senate blue, or at least take away Republicans veto override power. That would explain why this seat is being so aggressively sought. Yes it’s Trump Country and yes it’s usually a Republican stronghold. But times have changed. After all, this is where Conor Lamb beat a Republican just a few months ago to take over the vacant congressional seat.
But these are pretty serious allegations that White and Gillooly are alleging, especially if it rises to the level of the State Senate Republican Caucus. As The Goose points out, that could potentially tie in other Republican candidates. I reached out to Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office this morning to see if he was aware of these claims and if an investigation was pending and will update this story if a statement is made.
The question now will be what, if any effect, these allegations could have on Tuesday’s election.
Craig told The Current earlier today that he noticed some irregularities when he, as a constituent, signed up to be notified about any town hall meetings held by Bartolotta. Events were held, but Craig was never notified. He says he reached out to several publications (disclosure: including the Current) who did not follow up on the story.
That’s when Redfern, a campaign staffer made the gmail account that would eventually receive the campaign solicitations.
“When this started, I wanted to find out if all constituents were getting access to these meetings or just Republicans,” Craig says. “Because a lot of people, mostly Democrats, weren’t getting notifications.
“But then when he started getting solicitation emails, we knew something was going on here.”
The story goes on to connect the dots between the SSRC and a large consulting firm whose job it is to get Republicans elected, Targeted Creative Communications. The story presents a purchase order from the caucus for $250,000 to a company called Citizen Dialog. When the reporters called, an associate answered the Phone “TC2.”
When the Current called today, the voice answering machine clearly answered “Targeted Creative Communications.” White and Gillooly question whether Citizen Dialog, the firm that was supposedly collecting data for these town halls was actually collecting data for fund-dazing purposes using taxpayer money.
“There’s no way this is a coincidence,” Craig tells the Current. “A lot of Republicans use this service. Something’s going on here. Whether these emails were automatically fed into the campaign database or an employee was told to do it. I think there’s something going on here that looks to be highly illegal and I think we deserve to know through an investigation what that is and how high it goes.”