Researcher to take plea for getting Steele credit report


A former staffer for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who used the Social Security number of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to fraudulently obtain his credit report has reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors that will allow her to avoid jail time.

Lauren Weiner, 25, a former committee researcher, will plead guilty to a misdemeanor, her attorney, Whitney C. Ellerman, said last night.

Weiner will agree to complete 150 hours of community service and after a year, her case will be dismissed under a deal reached with the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, the lawyer said.

"She made a mistake," Ellerman said. "She's accepting responsibility for it and she wants to move on with her life."

Weiner was a deputy research director at the committee when she began investigating the background of Steele, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

She and her supervisor, Katie Barge, resigned after managers learned of the illegal use of Steele's Social Security number last summer.

The committee disclosed the staffers' actions in September, drawing sharp criticism from national Republicans and Steele, who said at the time that those responsible should be "prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

It appears unlikely that Barge will be charged with a crime, her attorney, William E. Lawler III, said last night. Lawler said federal investigators considered Barge a witness.

"She was always a witness, and it is my understanding is this [plea agreement with Weiner] is the only action that is going to be taken," Lawler said. "It is my clear understanding that this is the only thing that is happening."

A spokeswoman for the Steele campaign did not return a call seeking comment last night.

Under the 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.

National Democratic opposition research efforts against Steele illustrate the lieutenant governor's potential strength as a candidate.

Democrats have aggressively attacked Steele in the early stages of the campaign. They have criticized him for raising money from President Bush, White House political adviser Karl Rove and other Bush allies, and have pounced on statements he made comparing embryonic stem cell research to Nazi-era experiments.

A lawyer, Steele was a self-employed consultant and former state Republican Party chairman before becoming lieutenant governor. He has previously acknowledged that his consulting business struggled, and that he dipped into retirement accounts and took out second mortgages on his Largo townhouse to make ends meet.

Conservative commentators said the actions of Weiner and Barge did not generate as much attention as they should have, arguing that if a Democratic candidate had been the target of identify theft, outrage would have been greater.

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