GOP leaders face election phone jamming probe

High-ranking Republicans including former White House officials can be questioned in a civil suit over jamming Democratic party phone lines in a key U.S. Senate race, a New Hampshire judge ruled on Thursday.

A senior official in President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign and two Republican campaign operatives have already been convicted in the phone-jamming scheme designed to keep New Hampshire Democrats from voting in a 2002 election.

But Democrats want an investigation into 22 telephone calls made by one of those convicted, James Tobin, and New Hampshire Republican Party officials to the White House on November 5 and 6, 2002, and say they believe national Republican officials may be involved in the scheme.

“This is about the fundamental right of the American people to vote and have their vote heard,” said Damien Lavera, a Democratic Party spokesman in Washington. “We want to know who knew what about it and when they knew it.”

The national Republican Party, which paid more than $2.5 million in legal fees to defend Tobin, says the calls to the White House were routine during a tight state Senate race and had nothing to do with the phone-jamming.

Tobin, the former New England regional director of the Republican National Committee, stepped down as New England chairman of Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign when he became subject of a federal criminal investigation.

In May, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

Hillsborough Superior Court Judge Philip Mangones granted the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s motion to take sworn depositions from Republican Party chief Ed Gillespie and former White House political director Ken Mehlman, the party’s current chairman, according to a copy of the motion.

Get-out-the-vote hot lines set up by state Democrats and a firefighter’s association to urge residents to vote were jammed by more than 800 hang-up calls. State Republican officials say they tried to stop it once they learned of the scheme.

Republican John Sununu beat then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in the election and state Republicans swept a number of close polls.

Democrats also want to question a former associate director of the White House Political Affairs Office, Alicia Davis, and the former executive director of the Republican Party’s political operations, Terry Nelson.

On Thursday, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman referred calls on the matter to the U.S. Justice Department.

© 2006 Reuters