WASHINGTON -- Some of the sharpest words against presidential candidate Ross Perot came yesterday from a group of his former volunteers who assembled here to warn voters about the "secret investigations" the Perot campaign conducted into their backgrounds.
Seven former volunteers, including two from Frederick, claimed that their credit histories had been illegally checked by the Dallas operation, and many told stories of being "viciously" treated while working on the Perot petition drive last spring and summer.
"If someone has this tendency to investigate in a secret way, it conjures up the image of the secret police in Communist Russia," said Cliff Arnebeck, an attorney and former Perot coordinator for Columbus, Ohio. "It conjures up the image of the Gestapo in Nazi Germany. It conjures up the image of a dictatorship."
Edward Dyck, the former Perot coordinator for St. Louis, said he resented the invasion of his privacy.
"I've got a good record. I'm a good American. I served my `D country 20 years," he said. "I've got nothing to hide, but I resent some unknown entity getting into my background, my credit reports."
He said he was fired in May by a Perot representative and accused of mishandling funds. "The only funds I handled were my own funds," he said. "I really felt like I was in a Third World country, a banana republic. I had no rights whatsoever."
Kevin Laughlin, the former Missouri coordinator, said that he was ousted after a "coup" by Perot officials from Dallas who accused him of selling buttons and bumper stickers on the side, which he denies.
He said he left the campaign after refusing to sign a confession of wrongdoing. "To me, it was like the Spanish Inquisition. Sign it or get hung. I walked out."
The Perot campaign released a statement yesterday denying the allegations of illegal credit checks and dismissing the complaints of "disgruntled former volunteers."
In the past, they've admitted hiring private security firms to conduct background checks on some volunteers, saying they had to check out allegations of misappropriation of funds and criminal records. Mr. Perot has said he had no knowledge of the investigations.
Yesterday, the state coordinators from Maryland and Virginia, buttressed by several dozen Perot supporters who demonstrated outside the press conference, rebutted the volunteers' charges of improper credit checks.
"The security firms did not do any illegal credit checking on anybody," said Maryland coordinator Joan Vinson, a longtime Perot friend. "They checked maybe people's addresses."
The Maryland Attorney General's Office is looking into whether or not the background checks of the two Frederick former volunteers, Lawrence Way and Richard Stover, violate consumer credit reporting laws and expects to rule within days.
The Perot credit checks are also being investigated by the Secret Service, the Federal Trade Commission and a House banking subcommittee. A violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act carries a penalty of $5,000 and one-year prison term per count.
Meanwhile, in another controversy, FBI Director William S. Sessions said in a letter to the editor of the New York Times yesterday that his agency acted fairly when it mounted an undercover sting operation offering a supposed Ross Perot audio tape to the Bush campaign in Texas.
The target of the sting, Bush chairman Jim Oberwetter, said Wednesday that Mr. Perot and the FBI owed him an apology, and he accused the Texas billionaire of "trying to put me in the jail house" by having an FBI undercover agent offer to sell him an audio tape supposedly of the independent candidate and documents from his office.
Mr. Oberwetter rejected the offered material, and the FBI concluded there was no evidence to support Mr. Perot's allegations of Republican dirty tricks aimed at him.