Data Case Rankles

Posted September 21, 2005 at 6:42pm

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) has not ruled out seeking civil action against the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee after learning that two DSCC staffers improperly obtained his credit reports, Steele’s chief of staff said Wednesday.

Steele, the likely Republican nominee for Senate in Maryland next year, is also awaiting a personal apology from DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) in the wake of the scandal, which was first reported in The Washington Post on Wednesday, said Steele’s chief of staff, Paul Ellington.

At day’s end, it was difficult to determine whether the disclosure would do long-term damage to the Democrats’ efforts to gain Senate seats in 2006, hurt the credibility of DSCC leaders such as Schumer or change the dynamic in the Maryland Senate race, which is expected to be one of the hardest-fought of the cycle.

Publicly, both parties remained uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the news that two young DSCC researchers may have broken the law by using Steele’s Social Security number to obtain his credit records. Privately, though, some Republican press officials were gleefully referring to the incident as “Schumer-gate” and were predicting that the Senator’s GOP colleagues could start speaking out on the matter soon.

And while Steele was bound by the FBI not to talk about the ongoing investigation, Ellington said his boss is keeping his options open about taking action against the DSCC in the future.

“Right now, what he’s attempting to do is find out the scope of this invasion of privacy,” Ellington said. “Right now, he’s worried about his family, about their privacy, about the safety of their financial records.”

In a statement released late Tuesday, Phil Singer, the DSCC communications director, said committee officials worked swiftly to correct their mistakes as soon as they realized in July that the researchers had obtained the information. He said the researchers quickly informed their superiors, who took the matter directly to the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C.

“The DSCC immediately ensured that Mr. Steele’s credit report was not used or disseminated to anyone,” Singer said in the statement. “The DSCC also launched an internal review into this matter, ascertained that it was an isolated incident, and has put safeguards in place to ensure that no employee ever does this again. While the DSCC did not authorize the employees to access Mr. Steele’s credit report, we regret that this incident occurred and apologize to Mr. Steele.”

Singer said the researchers — who were identified in the Post article as Katie Barge and Lauren Weiner — have resigned. Sources said, however, that they were initially suspended with pay while the committee conducted an internal review before resigning earlier this month, and campaign finance records show that Barge and Weiner were paid through the end of August.

In an additional statement released Wednesday evening, Singer said, “As Chair of the DSCC, Schumer directed it to apologize, which it did [Tuesday]. As we said [Tuesday], it was the DSCC who informed the U.S. attorney about this incident. While the DSCC is not a target of the inquiry and did not authorize the employees to access Mr. Steele’s credit report, we regret that this incident occurred and the employees have resigned.”

Steele was informed by the FBI about 10 days ago that he “may be the victim of a crime,” Ellington said.

Ellington added that law enforcement authorities told Steele that the DSCC had improperly obtained a credit report on him and were trying to determine whether the two researchers who had it in their possession had broken the law.

Under federal law, it is illegal to obtain a credit report under false pretenses. Penalties for identity theft vary depending on the circumstances.

When he was first running for lieutenant governor in 2002, Steele, then a lawyer and chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, acknowledged that he had had financial troubles — a potential goldmine for opposition researchers.

Certain credit reports “are going to give you some pretty interesting stuff,” said Terry Clemans, executive director of the National Credit Reporting Association in Bloomingdale, Ill.

But now it is the Democrats who may find themselves on the defensive, even as they attempt to argue that their response to the internal disclosure was fast and above-board.

A Democratic operative familiar with opposition research practices, said that pulling someone’s credit report has never been considered a usual part of gathering information on a candidate.

“I’ve never been asked how to do it. I’ve never done it. I’ve never taught anyone how to do it. I don’t even know how to do it,” said the operative. “It’s not common practice.”

In Maryland, the revelations could hurt the Democrats’ attempts to hold the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) next year.

Since Steele rose to prominence in state and national politics, Democrats have fretted that his presence as the Republican Senate nominee could cut into the Democrats’ traditionally overwhelming support from black voters.

Already some state Democratic leaders have been criticized by black Democrats for favoring Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D), who is white, over former Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D), in the race to replace Sarbanes. With the publicity surrounding the DSCC and Steele, some black voters may frown upon the fact that a Democratic political organization was conducting improper opposition research on a black Republican.

“You’re just giving [Republicans] an excellent weapon to point at Democrats and particularly to use to target African-Americans,” warned Isiah Leggett, a former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. “Steele will not need to win the African-American vote. He just needs to increase the percentage. Even if he gets 18 or 19 percent, that’s the ballgame.”

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.