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CJRColumbia Journalism Review

January/February 2001 | Contents

The Story of a Truly Contaminated Election

BY LAWRENCE K. GROSSMAN

On November 30, when Vice President Gore's vote challenge was making Florida the epicenter of the universe, I happened to be in St. Petersburg, Florida, moderating a conference on "Bioterrorism and the Media." Terrible as the subject of the bioterrorism conference is, it promised at least to offer a welcome respite from the endless but irresistible election mess. As it turned out, I was wrong. The centerpiece of the conference was, of all things, the case study of a truly contaminated election.

The only proven incident of bioterrorism the United States has ever experienced, we learned, was a bizarre plot by the Rajneeshees, a religious cult, to steal a county election in Oregon in 1984. The Rajneeshees, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a self-proclaimed guru exiled from India, had moved into a ranch in rural Wasco County, taken political control of the small nearby town of Antelope, and changed its name to Rajneesh. Next, the cult sought to run the whole county by winning the local election in 1984.

The amazing story of the Wasco County election scandal was revealed to the conference's riveted participants by Leslie L. Zaitz, an investigative reporter for The Oregonian, and Dr. John Livengood, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control. To win the county election, the Rajneeshees planned to sicken a good portion of the population in the town of The Dalles, where most Wasco County voters live. Their weapon of choice to keep local residents from voting was salmonella bacteria. Cult members decided to test the use of salmonella and, if successful, to contaminate the entire water system of The Dalles on Election Day. First, the Rajneeshees poisoned two visiting Wasco County commissioners on a hot day by plying them with refreshing drinks of cold water laced with salmonella. Then, on a shopping trip to The Dalles, cult members sprinkled salmonella on produce in grocery stores "just for fun." According to reporter Zaitz, that experiment didn't get the results they wanted so the Rajneeshees proceeded to clandestinely sprinkle salmonella at the town's restaurant salad bars. Ten restaurants were hit and more than 700 people got sick.

"They apparently didn't expect it to be such a huge success," Zaitz said. "The attention attracted by the salad bar escapade brought hordes of health officials and investigators into The Dalles. It dashed the cult's plan to do worse on Election Day." Health officials soon pinned down salmonella as the cause of the sudden outbreak, but put the blame on food handlers. In 1984, who could have imagined bioterrorism?

The Rajneeshees also bused in homeless people by the hundreds from all across the country to register in Wasco County so they could vote in the '84 election. That plan failed when, alerted by the mass registration of the homeless, the state threatened to conduct administrative hearings on every new local voter. The cult's conspiracy to contaminate the election failed and a year later, the entire Rajneeshee commune collapsed under the weight of an internal conflict. Cult informers confessed to numerous crimes, including plots to kill the U.S. attorney, the state attorney general, and the guru's doctor, as well as the plot to contaminate the election. Vials of salmonella were found on the Rajneeshees' ranch.

Zaitz and his investigative reporting team produced a twenty-part series on the Rajneeshees for The Oregonian starting in June 1985. After the commune collapsed they went back and produced a follow-up series. Among other things, they learned that the Rajneeshees had secretly put together a top-ten hit list on which Zaitz's name appeared as number three.

"If anything, the local news media were restrained and conservative in their coverage of the salmonella episode," Zaitz told the conference. "There was nothing alarmist, nothing to trigger a public panic. More aggressive coverage perhaps would have heated up already tense community relations with the commune. Yet the benign treatment also gave the Rajneeshees comfort that they could get away with it . . . . Fortunately, the commune collapsed before that could happen. But consider this: If they knew reporters were watching closely, would they have even tried?"

Something like that might be said of the presidential balloting mess. If, in the days before the voting, reporters had focused on the botched job the nation's election districts were doing with voting procedures for the central political event of our democracy, the election of a president, would the balloting and ballot-counting have been quite so off-base?

For epidemiologist Livengood, however, who had been dispatched to Wasco County to solve the cause of the mysterious outbreak, the story had a different, simpler moral: "Don't eat at salad bars."

Lawrence K. Grossman, a former president of NBC News and PBS, is a regular columnist for CJR.