Did White House help jam phone calls in election?

Republican officials describe the two-dozen calls to the White House around Election Day 2002 as normal conversations about a close Senate race in New Hampshire.

Democrats have suggested in a court filing that another subject was discussed: a GOP scheme that jammed phone lines to keep state Democrats from being encouraged to vote.

The phone-jamming operation has led to three federal convictions and a pending indictment. Prosecutors have not raised questions in court about the White House conversations _ but records of the calls were available to them as criminal court exhibits.

The records show that Republican campaign operative James Tobin, who recently was convicted in the case, made two dozen calls to the White House within a three-day period around Election Day 2002 _ as the jamming operation was finalized, carried out and then abruptly shut down.

The national Republican Party, which paid millions in legal bills to defend Tobin, says it was “preposterous” to suggest the calls involved phone jamming.

Democrats have filed a motion asking a federal judge to order GOP and White House officials to answer questions about the phone jamming. The filing is part of the Democrats’ civil lawsuit that alleges Republican voter fraud and seeks monetary damages.

Repeated hang-up calls that jammed telephone lines at a Democratic get-out-the-vote center occurred in the race that brought victory to GOP Sen. John Sununu. He defeated Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, 51 percent to 46 percent, on Nov. 5, 2002.

Besides the conviction of Tobin, the Republicans’ New England regional director, prosecutors negotiated two plea bargains: one with a New Hampshire Republican Party official and another with the owner of a telemarketing firm involved in the scheme. The owner of the subcontractor firm whose employees made the hang-up calls is under indictment.

The phone records show that most calls to the White House were from Tobin, who became President Bush’s presidential campaign chairman for the New England region in 2004. Other calls from New Hampshire senatorial campaign offices to the White House could have been made by a number of people.

Virtually all the calls to the White House went to the same number, which currently rings inside the political affairs office. In 2002, White House political affairs was led by now-RNC chairman Ken Mehlman. The White House declined to say which staffer was assigned that phone number in 2002.

“As policy, we don’t discuss ongoing legal proceedings within the courts,” White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said.

A GOP campaign consultant in 2002, Jayne Millerick, made a 17-minute call to the White House on Election Day, but said in an interview she did not recall the subject. Millerick, who later became the New Hampshire GOP chairwoman, said in an interview she did not learn of the jamming until after the election.

A Democratic analysis of phone records introduced at Tobin’s criminal trial show he made 115 outgoing calls _ mostly to the same number in the White House political affairs office _ between Sept. 17 and Nov. 22, 2002. Two dozen of the calls were made from 9:28 a.m. the day before the election through 2:17 a.m. the night after the voting.

Prosecutors did not need the White House calls to convict Tobin and negotiate the two guilty pleas.

Whatever the reason for not using the White House records, prosecutors “tried a very narrow case,” said Paul Twomey, who represented the Democratic Party in the criminal and civil cases. The Justice Department did not say why the White House records were not used.

The Democrats said in their civil case motion that they were entitled to know the purpose of the calls to government offices “at the time of the planning and implementation of the phone-jamming conspiracy … and the timing of the phone calls made by Mr. Tobin on Election Day.”

While national Republican officials have said they deplore such operations, the Republican National Committee said it paid for Tobin’s defense because he is a longtime supporter and told officials he had committed no crime.

By Nov. 4, 2002, the Monday before the election, an Idaho firm was hired to make the hang-up calls. The Republican state chairman at the time, John Dowd, said in an interview he learned of the scheme that day and tried to stop it.

Dowd, who blamed an aide for devising the scheme without his knowledge, contended that the jamming began on Election Day despite his efforts. A police report confirmed the Manchester Professional Fire Fighters Association reported the hang-up calls began about 7:15 a.m. and continued for about two hours. The association was offering rides to the polls.

Robert Kelner, a Washington lawyer representing the Republican National Committee in the civil litigation, said there was no connection between the phone jamming operation and the calls to the White House and party officials.

“On Election Day, as anybody involved in politics knows, there’s a tremendous volume of calls between political operatives in the field and political operatives in Washington,” Kelner said.

© 2006 The Associated Press