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GOP paying legal bills of Bush campaign official accused of voter suppression

WASHINGTON --Despite a zero-tolerance policy on tampering with voters, the Republican Party quietly has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide private defense lawyers for a former Bush campaign official charged with conspiring to keep Democrats from voting in New Hampshire.

James Tobin, the president's 2004 campaign chairman for New England, is charged in New Hampshire federal court with four felonies accusing him of conspiring with a state GOP official and a GOP consultant in Virginia to jam Democratic and labor union get-out-the-vote phone banks in November 2002.

A telephone firm was paid to make repeated hang-up phone calls to overwhelm the phone banks in New Hampshire and prevent them from getting Democratic voters to the polls on Election Day 2002, prosecutors allege. Republican John Sununu won a close race that day to be New Hampshire's newest senator.

At the time, Tobin, of Bangor, Maine, was the RNC's New England regional director, before moving to President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.

A top New Hampshire Party official and a GOP consultant already have pleaded guilty and cooperated with prosecutors. Tobin's indictment accuses him of specifically calling the GOP consultant to get a telephone firm to help in the scheme.

"The object of the conspiracy was to deprive inhabitants of New Hampshire and more particularly qualified voters ... of their federally secured right to vote," states the latest indictment issued by a federal grand jury on May 18.

Since charges were first filed in December, the RNC has spent more than $722,000 to provide Tobin, who has pleaded innocent, a team of lawyers from the high-powered Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly. The firm's other clients include Bill and Hillary Clinton and former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros.

The GOP's filings with the FEC list the payments to Williams & Connolly without specifying they were for Tobin's defense. Political parties have wide latitude on how they spend their money, including on lawyers.

Republican Party officials said they don't ordinarily discuss specifics of their legal work, but confirmed to The Associated Press they had agreed to underwrite Tobin's defense because he was a longtime supporter and that he assured them he had committed no crimes.

"Jim is a longtime friend who has served as both an employee and an independent contractor for the RNC," a spokeswoman for the RNC, Tracey Schmitt, said Wednesday. "This support is based on his assurance and our belief that Jim has not engaged in any wrongdoing."

The Republican Party repeatedly and pointedly has disavowed any tactics aimed at keeping citizens from voting since allegations of voter suppression surfaced during the Florida recount in 2000 that tipped the presidential race to Bush.

Earlier this week, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman, the former White House political director, reiterated a "zero-tolerance policy" for any GOP official caught trying to block legitimate votes.

"The position of the Republican National Committee is simple: We will not tolerate fraud; we will not tolerate intimidation; we will not tolerate suppression. No employee, associate or any person representing the Republican Party who engages in these kinds of acts will remain in that position," Mehlman wrote Monday to a group that studied voter suppression tactics.

Dennis Black and Dane Butswinkas, two Williams & Connolly lawyers for Tobin, did not return calls Wednesday seeking comment. Brian Tucker, a New Hampshire lawyer on the team, declined to comment.

Tobin's lawyers have attacked the prosecution, suggesting evidence was introduced to the grand jury improperly, that their client originally had been promised he wouldn't be indicted and that he was charged improperly under one of the statutes.

Tobin stepped down from his Bush-Cheney post a couple of weeks before the November 2004 election after Democrats suggested he was involved in the phone bank scheme. He was charged a month after the election.

Paul Twomey, a volunteer lawyer for New Hampshire Democrats who are pursuing a separate lawsuit involving the phone scheme, said he was surprised the RNC was willing to pay Tobin's legal bills and that it suggested more people may be involved.

"It originally appeared to us that there were just certain rogue elements of the Republican Party who were willing to do anything to win control of the U.S. Senate, including depriving Americans of their ability to vote," Twomey said.

"But now that the RNC actually is bankrolling Mr. Tobin's defense, coupled with the fact that it has refused some discovery in the civil case, really raises the questions of who are they protecting, how high does this go and who was in on this," Twomey said.

Federal prosecutors have secured testimony from the two convicted conspirators in the scheme directly implicating Tobin.

Charles McGee, the New Hampshire GOP official who pleaded guilty, told prosecutors he informed Tobin of the plan and asked for Tobin's help in finding a vendor who could make the calls that would flood the phone banks.

Allen Raymond, a former colleague of Tobin who operated a Virginia-based telephone services firm, told prosecutors Tobin called him in October 2002, explained the telephone plan and asked Raymond's company to help McGee implement it.

Raymond's lawyer told the court that Tobin made the request for help in his official capacity as the top RNC official for New England and his client believed the RNC had sanctioned the activity.

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On the Net:

The indictment in this is available at: http://wid.ap.org/documents/tobinindictment.pdf

RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman's recent letter on voter suppression is available at: http://wid.ap.org/documents/rncletter.pdf

The Republican National Committee: http://www.rnc.org

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