Aide pleads guilty in Steele case

Former Democratic researcher used supervisor's work credit card to get candidate's credit history

March 25, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

A researcher for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee used her supervisor's work credit card to obtain a credit history for Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, answering personal questions on a Web site as if she were Steele, court documents filed yesterday show.

The details were revealed in a plea agreement entered by researcher Lauren B. Weiner and submitted in U.S. District Court in Washington, and provide a glimpse into the world of political opposition research at the highest levels in Washington.

Weiner, 25, pleaded guilty yesterday to fraudulently obtaining a credit report, a misdemeanor. Sentencing is scheduled for March 26, 2007. Under the agreement, the charges could be dismissed at the time of sentencing if Weiner completes 150 hours of community service, does not violate any federal, state or local laws, and maintains her current address.

Weiner was a researcher for the Democratic committee last year when she began investigating Steele, a Republican who at the time had not formally announced he was entering the race for U.S. Senate to replace retiring Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes. She was fired after the July incident.

Ordered to gather information on Steele, Weiner went to an Internet site called TransUnion to get the lieutenant governor's credit report, putting in his name, date of birth, Social Security number and home address. She created a fictitious e-mail account -- gop steele@yahoo.com -- in order to file the request. She signed off on the site's terms of use and service agreement, which included a requirement that she agree "not to impersonate another person," according to the court documents. And she clicked "accept."

E. Mark Braden, Steele's attorney and former counsel to the Republican National Committee, said he was particularly concerned that a committee credit card was used to obtain Steele's report, adding that it showed complicity on the part of more senior party officials.

"The lieutenant governor and his family could sue the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee," Braden said. "It's clear that she was operating under the authority of the committee."

Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the group has cooperated with the investigation and that the committee, whose officials promptly destroyed the report after learning that Weiner had obtained it, has been absolved of any wrongdoing.

"The U.S. attorney's office also confirmed that the DSCC, as it has repeatedly said, did not use the credit report for any financial or political purpose and that Mr. Steele suffered no economic harm," Singer said in a statement. "The DSCC thanks the U.S. attorney's office for its thorough and prompt review. This matter is now closed."

Weiner's attorney, Whitney C. Ellerman, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Documents indicate that the maximum sentence could have been a one-year imprisonment, a fine of $100,000 or a one-year term of supervised release, among others.

Katie Barge, a former research director for the committee and Weiner's supervisor, resigned after the incident. Weiner had used Barge's credit card to gather the information. Barge's lawyer, William E. Lawler III, said she was a witness in the case.

Lawler said his client was aware that Weiner was doing general research on Steele.

"But frankly, she did not understand the whole process for it and certainly did not know that it involved any misrepresentation of identity," he said.

Court documents indicate that Weiner first tried unsuccessfully to obtain Steele's credit report through a Web site called Experian, but when the site requested Steele's driver's license number, which Weiner did not know, she started the process with Trans Union.

Weiner registered with Trans Union as Steele, inventing a password and answering a "secret question" that she could use if she later forgot the password, court documents indicate.

After putting in the personal information, including the Yahoo e-mail account she had created from her work computer, a move she did not confide to her supervisor, Weiner reached a screen that said: "(Michael Steele) your credit report is moments away!" She then accepted a terms-of-use and service agreement.

Weiner processed through a series of screens with the heading "We need to ensure you are really (Michael Steele)" by entering additional personal information, including his employer, revolving account numbers or installment account numbers and personal address history. She then received a copy of his credit history.

Later that day, Barge notified her supervisors of what Weiner had done. The report was destroyed, and the next day the matter was reported to the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia, court filings show.

"Weiner, and the DSCC, did not use Lt. Gov. Steele's credit report for any financial or political purpose," according to the statement of offense from the prosecutor's office, a document outlining what transpired. "No economic loss resulted from Weiner's actions."

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