STEALING FROM STEELE
There may be enough brewing in the federal investigation into how senior staff at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee procured the credit report of Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele to turn this into a full-blown scandal.
According to Capitol Hill sources, as well as sources tied to the FBI and the Washington, D.C., U.S. Attorney’s office, which is involved in the case, the investigation into “Credit Rate-Gate” could extend beyond Steele to other prospective and current Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate the DSCC were doing opposition research on. “We’re hearing that they are looking into whether this was a regular occurrence,” says a Democratic aide with knowledge of the DSCC’s activities.
According to federal investigators, the DSCC is not a target of the investigation, and have formally interviewed a number of individuals who claim that the Steele credit report was a one-time error in judgment by staff. However, given the research process that was used, and the apparent ease with which Steele’s credit history was accessed, investigators are curious to see if there is more to the story.
According to DSCC sources, Steele’s Social Security number was discovered in a court document. Similar documents have been collected by the DSCC for a number of other current Republican Senate candidates or individuals identified as being interested in challenging for a Democrat-held Senate seat during the 2006 cycle in West Virginia, New York, Minnesota, North Dakota, Florida, and Hawaii.
“If it was that easy to get Steele’s, what’s to say that that kind of material wasn’t accessed for others?” says a source with knowledge of the investigation. “It’s a natural question given the circumstances. It’s just follow-through. We have cooperation from the committee and the people directly involved.”
Steele admitted during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign that he had some unpaid debts resulting from his opening his own consulting business and a failed political campaign after a career spent largely as a corporate lawyer. He has regularly filed financial disclosure reports with the Maryland state ethics commission, which indicate that he has paid down some of the debt, which is less than $75,000.
“If unpaid campaign debts were a political issue, then a lot of the Senators and congressmen would be unelectable,” says a Republican Senate staffer. “I don’t know why the DSCC was wasting its time.”
Steele has not announced whether he will seek the Republican nomination for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Steele is the top choice of National Republican Senatorial Committee, which helps recruit candidates for the Senate. Many believe Steele will jump into the race, though this latest dustup with opposition research may give him pause.
In the 2006 election cycle, Democrats find themselves defending Senate seats in 17 states. Maryland is considered a state in play, in part because of the potential attractiveness of Steele should he run.
Two DSCC staffers, one of whom helped oversee opposition research of candidates, have resigned from their posts, and according a Democratic Senate leadership aide, there was a sense among senior Democrats that the story might eventually peter out. “No one wants to push this story. Republicans do this kind of research too.”
While it’s true that Republicans do opposition research, the party has never gone to the lengths that Democrats have in recent years, including the hiring and use of private investigators and leaking of sealed divorce documents and information. During the summer of 2004, it was revealed that the Democratic National Committee had assisted some Democrats in contracting with private firms to further investigate the military record of President Bush.
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