Phonegate: Jamming Democrats' Campaign Efforts

It began as a dirty trick: On Election Day in 2002, New Hampshire Republicans hired a calling center in Idaho to jam the phone lines at Democratic offices, so that Democratic voters couldn't get rides to the polls. The ploy has not faded with time, however: The episode has blossomed into a criminal investigation, a civil lawsuit and a story whose players include several prominent Republicans.

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An election day dirty trick from 2002 is still dogging the GOP. The story of a Republican plan to disrupt Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts in New Hampshire four years ago just won't go away.

As NPR's Peter Overby reports, the case continues to pull in prominent figures, most recently, Republican National Chairman Ken Melman, Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and ex-Lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

NPR: 00 a.m. on Election Day.

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CARL KASELL: — that voter turnout is critical. The race for U.S. senator for New Hampshire is among the tightest in the nation. The latest polls show the Democratic --

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: But even as that was being aired, telephone lines into New Hampshire Democratic offices were being jammed. State Democratic Chair Kathleen Sullivan remembers the scene, as party workers tried to speak with voters who needed rides to the polls.

KATHLEEN SULLIVAN: The calls keep coming, but there's nobody there. They just hang up.

: The phone jamming continued for about an hour and a half at five Democratic offices and one union office. The phone company traced the calls to Idaho. It shut off all incoming calls from that area code. The Senate race turned out to be not so tight. Republican John Sununu won. But Sullivan said some down ballot races were much closer.

SULLIVAN: To me it's irrelevant whether or not any election was actually impacted. The fact that this happened was just plain wrong. And it should not happen in a democracy.

: Now it's the subject of a criminal case, a civil suit and a steady drumbeat of news coverage. New Hampshire's Republican chairman, Wayne Semprini, says it's nothing more than Democrats milking a four-year-old story.

WAYNE SEMPRINI: A rogue employee working totally on his own decided to do something that we're all the first to agree was a pretty stupid act.

: Actually there were at least three people in on it. First, Charles McGee, then director of the state GOP. He thought up the phone-jamming scheme. It got him seven months in prison. Second is Allan Raymond. He was the middleman who hired the Idaho firm that made the calls. He's been sentenced to three months in prison. And third is the man that brought McGee and Raymond together.

James Tobin was the Republican National Committee's New England coordinator. He's been convicted of two federal felonies. Tobin lives in Maine but has strong ties to DC. Even after his involvement in the phone jamming came to light, he served as regional chairman for the 2004 Bush/Cheney campaign. He's also a Bush Ranger. That is he raised at least $200,000 for that campaign.

In the 2002 race, Tobin frequently spoke with aides to Ken Melman, then the political director at the White House. Mike Gehrke is director of the liberal Senate Majority Project. This spring they documented Tobin's White House phone calls.

MIKE GEHRKE: Well I think anybody who's making 100 calls to the White House is somebody who's at a pretty high level of a political party.

: Mehlman, now the chairman of the Republican National Committee, says that's a complete distortion of what went on.

KEN MEHLMAN: What I think is so disingenuous about this is that people who know this case, who know me, know that in fact there was no involvement and know that the conversations with a regional director in the White House political office is entirely appropriate.

: Then there's the money angle. Allen Raymond charged the New Hampshire Republicans more than $15,000 to hire the phone bank. The party appears to have gotten the cash from two sources. First, a political committee connected to Texas congressman Tom DeLay. He's leaving Congress to deal with a separate felony charge in Texas. And second from a couple of Indian tribes represented by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He's at the center of a corruption probe in Washington.

Charles Arlinghaus, a longtime Republican operative in New Hampshire, says this makes a problem for Republicans.

CHARLES ARLINGHAUS: It's very damning. You know, I mentioned there were other $15,000 amounts. But, you know, you could clearly make the case that money is fungible and all money makes all other money possible.

: The RNC also spent more than $3 million on a platoon of lawyers for Tobin's criminal defense. That support stopped when he was convicted. James Tobin is due to be sentenced May 17. He is appealing his conviction, but the RNC isn't paying for it.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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