Steele urges legal action against Democrats

But both parties seen as employing unsavory tactics

September 22, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

A day after the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee admitted that two staffers had obtained Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's credit report, Steele called for those responsible to be "prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

The U.S. attorney's office in Washington and the FBI are conducting a criminal investigation into the incident, which appears to have stemmed from opposition research in preparation for Steele's likely U.S. Senate bid.

But some say the incident is probably a sign of things to come in what is shaping up as the most competitive U.S. Senate race Maryland has seen in decades.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said obtaining Steele's credit report was over the line. But the governor, an eight-year veteran of Washington politics, said the incident just shows that Steele is "in the big leagues."

"It's the kind of Capitol Hill politics I don't like," Ehrlich said. "Both parties are guilty on Capitol Hill" of unsavory tactics.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said digging into things such as credit reports is commonplace. Campaigns don't spend large amounts of money on opposition research only to get what's readily available in the public record, he said.

"Both parties do this," he said. "They can deny it until the cows come home. This is standard operating procedure."

Steele's chief of staff, Paul D. Ellington, said in a statement yesterday that the lieutenant governor "was extremely disturbed to learn about the alleged criminal identity theft of his personal financial records."

Last night, Steele said the incident "was a sad and disappointing situation, and I'm going to let the FBI conduct its investigation."

Ellington said Steele was notified by FBI agents that a criminal investigation is under way and was asked by them not to comment on it.

"He intends to honor this request and expects that those responsible for these actions will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Ellington said.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Phil Singer said the staffers obtained Steele's Social Security number through public court records. Singer reiterated that it was the committee itself that reported the incident to the U.S. attorney's office and that the employees were not authorized to get Steele's credit report. He said procedures are in place to prevent a repeated incident.

"We regret that this incident occurred, and the employees have resigned," said Singer, who would not identify the two staffers.

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Ronayne said he could not comment because the matter is subject to an ongoing criminal investigation.

Neither campaign committee would comment directly on how it goes about assembling research on potential opponents. But collecting everything in the public record is standard procedure.

For example, the Democratic committee has also filed extensive public records requests in Annapolis, probing Steele's travel records and expense accounts in what appears to be the preliminary stages of opposition research.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington confirmed that its fraud and public corruption unit is pursuing a criminal investigation into the matter in conjunction with the FBI. She declined to comment further.

Under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, it is a felony to willfully and knowingly obtain information from a consumer reporting agency under false pretenses. Offenders can be fined and imprisoned.

Republicans have also run into legal trouble for campaign snooping in recent years. The former executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, for example, pleaded guilty to eavesdropping on a Democratic conference call to discuss strategy in a fight over that state's redistricting plan in 2002.

Sabato said dirty politicking is common in high-profile elections, and the Senate race in Maryland next year is likely to be one of the most hotly contested in the nation.

Republicans hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate, but national trends in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina appear to be working against them, and the GOP needs to campaign hard in the states where it has the chance to pick up seats, Sabato said.

Democrats, conversely, can't afford to lose the Maryland seat being vacated by five-term incumbent Paul S. Sarbanes.

Steele's finances were a minor issue in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, during which the former Maryland Republican Party chairman acknowledged having accumulated debts in the years when he was attempting to establish himself in business and politics. His subsequent filings with the State Ethics Commission show that he has paid off some of those debts.

Democrats will have a hard time using any information they might have found in the credit report because Republicans can dismiss it as tainted, Sabato said.

"It's spy versus spy, and the Democrats' spies just got caught," Sabato said.

andy.green@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Gwyneth K. Shaw and Melissa Harris contributed to this article.

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