Have Minnesota Prosecutors Cracked the Senate Cyberscandal?

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Sept. 13 2000 11:30 PM

Have Minnesota Prosecutors Cracked the Senate Cyberscandal?

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Minnesota prosecutors may have at last unraveled the state's curious cyberpolitics scandal, an apparent dirty-tricks operation by Republican Sen. Rod Grams' campaign to disrupt the Tuesday Sept. 12 Democratic-Farmer-Labor Senate primary. (See " Wordgate" for Slate's first account of the controversy.)

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Wordgate's first rumblings occurred in July, when DFL primary candidate Mike Ciresi charged Grams' campaign with sending anti-Ciresi e-mails to hundreds of DFL activists. The e-mails were ostensibly written by a DFL activist named "Katie Stevens" using a Hotmail account. But when the Ciresi campaign examined the "properties" of the Microsoft Word files attached to the e-mails, they found three Grams staffers identified as the authors. The Grams campaign tepidly denied involvement, and Anoka County prosecutors opened an investigation.

Two weeks ago, prosecutors seized two computers and nine diskettes from the home of Grams campaign political director Christine Gunhus, one of the staffers. Late last week, the prosecutors revealed their probable cause: subpoenaed records showing that an AT&T WorldNet user had repeatedly accessed the "Katie Stevens" Hotmail account through Gunhus' home number. Such a dirty-tricks operation is potentially a felony under Minnesota's Fair Campaign Practices Act, which prohibits campaigns from disseminating anonymous information.

Gunhus has not yet been charged, and it's possible, for example, that someone else could have accessed the Hotmail account from her home. Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the state version of the FBI, is still testing Gunhus' computers. But the Grams campaign's denials sound more suspicious in light of new facts. In July, Grams' campaign spokesman Kurt Zellers told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "We didn't put this together and send it out of the Grams campaign office" (emphasis added).

Gunhus' lawyer Doug Kelly also offers a parsing defense. "When the dust has settled, my client will be found not to have violated any laws," he said Friday. That's seems to be a sideways reference to an exemption in the Fair Campaign Practices Act, which allows anonymous dissemination if it's done by an independent individual who spends less than $300. Kelly may find himself arguing a creative legal theory: A campaign's political director can send out attack e-mails yet be independent of her employer. Asked if his client denies sending the e-mails, Kelly dodges: "I'm not in a position to share any of that with the media."

Bob Parta, the chief deputy Anoka County attorney, says his office won't determine if there is a prosecutable offense until the investigation ends, probably before the November election. If Gunhus' computers come up clean, prosecutors may have to stop there. They haven't seized computers from the Grams campaign or from the homes of the two other Grams operatives identified in the Word documents. The Word authorship properties content, while unknown to most users, is easy for experienced users to fake, so it may not be useful evidence.

The prosecutor's affidavit has added flesh to the early, skeletal accounts of Wordgate. According to the affidavit, the perpetrator showed initial flashes of sophistication, registering the Hotmail account as "Katie Stevens" at a Kinko's. The perp sent all four negative e-mails from the store, which might have covered the digital tracks, since it's unclear if Kinko's can identify specific customers. But then the attacker got cocky. After receiving a query from a curious DFL party official, Stevens responded, "Please don't try to find out who we are." Ciresi staffers, believing Stevens worked for a rival DFL candidate, e-mailed her an invitation to meet. She responded yes, but never showed up. Her personal replies were sent from Gunhus' home.

(The focus on Gunhus has also reminded Minnesotans of the ambiguous relationship between the political director and Grams. Roll Call and the Star Tribune have both identified the publicity-shy Gunhus as Grams' girlfriend, though there's little proof. The parties won't confirm or deny it. Grams, who was elected in 1994 with a family values campaign, divorced in 1996. Gunhus, who worked for that Grams campaign, divorced her husband in 1994.)

Even if Gunhus and the Grams campaign are implicated in Wordgate, Grams may not suffer from the caper. Grams has endured little more than embarrassment from the scandal so far. But Ciresi, a feisty trial lawyer who secured $7.1 billion for the state in Minnesota's 1998 tobacco trial, lost Tuesday's primary to department-store heir Mark Dayton. Instead of Ciresi, a well-financed moderate whom Gunhus quite rightly feared, Grams will face Dayton, a two-time loser for high office who would mandate employer-provided health coverage. "Katie Stevens" can't take credit for Ciresi's loss—Dayton's midsummer ad campaign damaged Ciresi more than her e-mails—but she's probably smiling about it, at least if she's Christine Gunhus.  

David Brauer is a Minnesota-based free-lancer whose work appears in Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, and the American Lawyer.

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