Wednesday, May 17, 2006

GOP Phone Jammer James Tobin Gets Off Easy

Do you remember James Tobin, the RNC official convicted last year of helping a top state GOP official find someone to jam Democratic get-out-the-vote lines on Election Day 2002? The jamming has led to four criminal prosecutions and a civil lawsuit:
Republican John Sununu defeated then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen for the U.S. Senate that day in what had been considered a cliffhanger.

A month before the election, Charles McGee, executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, was mailed a Democratic flier that offered Election Day rides to the polls. The circular listed telephone numbers of party offices in five cities and towns.

"I paused and thought to myself, I might find out -- I might think of an idea of disrupting those operations," McGee later testified. A Marine Corps veteran, McGee approached the situation like a combat operation: "Eventually the idea coalesced into disrupting their phone lines . . . [it's] military common sense that if you can't communicate, you can't plan and organize."

When voting began Nov. 5, McGee's plan worked like a charm. For two crucial hours, an Idaho telecommunications firm tied up Democratic and union phone lines, bringing their get-out-the-vote plans to a halt. The effort helped John E. Sununu (R) win the Senate seat.

Tobin, a longtime GOP operative, was later appointed New England chairman for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, but resigned when he became a subject of the federal criminal inquiry.

McGee and Allen Raymond, then head of GOP Marketplace, a telemarketing firm in Alexandria, Va., both testified against Tobin at his trial and pled guilty to criminal charges. Tobin was convicted of putting Charles McGee, executive director of the state Republican Party in 2002, in touch with Raymond, who hired another telemarketing firm to actually place the hundreds of hang-up calls. A co-owner of that firm at the time, Shaun Hansen, of Spokane, Wash., was indicted in March.

Prosecutors, had initially asked for a two-year prison sentence, then changed it to one year. The State Democratic Party Chairwoman commented that she thought that the sentence was fair, but is still angry that Tobin "showed so little remorse." Some democrats affected by the phone jamming appeared in court and made statements. One of the Manchester firefighters said that he "spoke to one elderly woman who had tried over and over to phone in for a ride to the polls only to get a busy signal. This was totally unfair to these people."

Tobin apologized to the court, the community and his family, saying he wished he hadn't gotten involved and regretted he hadn't acted to stop it.

"I have tried to live my life honestly and with integrity," he said.

U.S. District Judge Steven McAuliffe rejected a request for a six-month sentence of home confinement and community service from Tobin's lawyers, who told the judge that Tobin has "high ethical standards."

Tobin was sentenced today to ten months in prison, fined $10,000 and two years probation. The maximum he could have gotten was a seven-year prison term and $500,000 in fines.
The judge said that he was impressed by the letters and testimony about Tobin's many acts of kindness toward friends and family, but wished Tobin "had a better sense of how serious this was."

The phone jamming was not just a dirty trick, he said. "It was a direct assault on a free and fair electoral system. ... We'll never know if the wrong people are sitting in government because of this effort."

McAuliffe called this a difficult sentencing after hearing about Tobin's work mentoring youth at his church, befriending a single mother and taking in her son over several summers, supporting grieving friends and providing bedside care to the sick, including one friend who died with Tobin at his side last week.

"He is my role model for what a husband and father should be," said Steven Langlois, who said he's known Tobin 30 years.

Tobin's wife, Ellen, also testified about her husband's involvement in raising their four children, staying home with their firstborn so she could gain traction in her career. They later reversed roles. "He has the highest integrity," she said.
"You've led an otherwise exemplary life," McAuliffe noted, saying this lapse would not define Tobin's life. But McAuliffe said the sentence must serve as a deterrent to others.

"People in your role need to know they cannot do this," he said.

Not with this sentence are they going to know that "crime doesn't pay":
The Republican National Committee has paid $3 million in legal fees in the criminal and civil cases. The RNC has paid at least $2.8 million to Williams & Connolly and other firms for Tobin's defense, and about $150,000 to Covington & Burling to defend the RNC in a civil suit brought by the New Hampshire Democratic Party. The RNC's legal fees exceed the $2.4 million spent by Sununu, the winner of the U.S. Senate race.

Evidence filed in Tobin's trial in December shows 22 phone calls from Tobin to the White House between 11:20 a.m. Election Day, two hours after the phone jamming was shut down, and 2:17 a.m. the next day, four hours after the outcome of the election was announced.

The phone-blocking occurred from 7 to 9 a.m. the crucial morning hours when many voters want to go to the polls before work.

"The phones were starting to ring, and as I would pick up one phone, it automatically bumped over to another line," testified Manchester firefighter Jeffery S. Duval, who was working the phones at union headquarters. "There was nobody on any of the phones. The phone lines were dead once we went to pick them up. . . . We gave the police department a call."

The local police began to investigate. Realizing that what seemed at first like a clever tactic could have criminal implications, state Republican officials hurriedly called their telecommunications consultants to stop the jamming, according to court testimony. But the case was soon turned over to the FBI and the Justice Department because the allegations involved violations of federal telecommunications law.

Democrats charge that these phone calls and the RNC payment of Tobin's legal fees suggest possible White House involvement or knowledge of the phone jamming plan. RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman was at the time serving as White House political director. He said he had no involvement or awareness of Tobin's scheme, and that it was not unusual that there would be lots of calls back and forth to the White House political office from a crucial state.

But the case has drawn complaints even from Republicans. By covering Tobin's legal fees, "the GOP appears to sanction and institutionalize corruption within the party," Craig Shirley, of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, recently wrote in a commentary published by The Washington Post.

Former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie decided to pay Tobin's legal fees. "He was accused of doing something in his capacity as an RNC consultant, and we believed him to be innocent," Gillespie said. While the RNC had no contractual obligation, "it's the custom, not written anywhere, that you covered your people," Gillespie said.

Gillespie said he informed the White House, but did not seek formal approval, before authorizing the payments. Mehlman said that under his chairmanship, consulting contracts now explicitly declare that independent contractors must be prepared to pay their own legal costs in civil and criminal cases.

The RNC has spent about $3 million defending Tobin, which Democrats -- and some Republicans -- say makes it appear the GOP tolerates corruption. Democrats renewed their criticism Wednesday in response to news that White House political adviser Karl Rove will attend a state party fundraiser next month.

"By helping the New Hampshire Republican Party cover the costs of their lengthy legal stonewall, Karl Rove is once again using the power of the White House to bury this investigation," state Democratic Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan said in a statement. "Three and a half years after the phone-jamming, New Hampshire voters still don't know who paid for the crime, who knew about it, or who authorized it."

Kind of like the 9/11 Commission Report.

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