A federal prosecutor yesterday described James Tobin as the linchpin in an "evil scheme" to jam Democratic phone banks across New Hampshire on election day in 2002.
Tobin's defense attorney portrayed the onetime Republican Party official as a hardworking family man, churchgoer and youth mentor who played an insignificant role in the phone jamming.
Tobin, a former New England campaign chairman for President Bush, faces up to 19 years in prison and $1 million in fines on four counts stemming from the 2002 incident. His trial began yesterday in U.S. District Court in Concord and is expected to last up to eight days.
Two men have already entered guilty pleas for their roles in the phone jamming: Charles McGee, who was the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee at the time of the 2002 election, and Allen Raymond, then head of a Virginia-based Republican consulting firm. McGee served a seven-month sentence in federal prison; Raymond has been sentenced to five months but has not yet served his time.
Lawyers for both sides agree that McGee hatched the phone-jamming plot, and that Raymond hired the Idaho telemarketing firm that barraged six targeted phone lines with hundreds of hang-up calls for about two hours on election day. That kept a series of Democratic offices and the Manchester firefighters union from making calls to tout candidates and offer rides to the polls.
Tobin is the one who made this "malicious idea" possible, prosecutor Andrew Levchuk said.
Tobin, 45, of Bangor, Maine, was the New England political director for the Republican National Committee and the Northeast director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee at the time of the 2002 election. McGee had been unable to find a firm willing to participate in the phone-jamming plot when he approached Tobin shortly before the election and asked for help, Levchuk said.
Tobin should have said, "Charles, Chuck, are you out of your mind?" Levchuk said. Instead, Tobin gave McGee the number for Raymond, who ran a firm called GOP Marketplace, and then called Raymond himself to let him know McGee would be in touch, the prosecutor said.
"These people crossed the line from old-fashioned, hard-nosed politics to crime," Levchuk said in his opening statement.
Tobin's lawyer, Dane Butswinkas, tried to distance his client from McGee and Raymond. In the midst of juggling a host of responsibilities during the campaign, Tobin took a single moment to pass along a phone number to McGee after a conversation about a general idea, not a specific plan, said Butswinkas, a partner in the Washington, D.C., firm of Williams & Connolly.
"Jim did not agree to join a criminal conspiracy or help commit a crime," he said.
Butswinkas, whose fees for the case are being paid by the RNC, also told the jury to give special scrutiny to testimony from Raymond. Raymond's career imploded after the phone-jamming scheme became public, and now he hopes his testimony might lead to a reduced sentence, Butswinkas said.
"Mr. Raymond is here in this courtroom to save himself from federal prison," he said. "That five months is hanging over his head like a piano."
Butswinkas also pointed out a mistake on the airport-style TV monitors at the courthouse yesterday. The screens directed visitors to a courtroom for the case of USA v. "John" Tobin, not James.
"It is just a clerical error, but it reminds me that sometimes the government makes mistakes. And sometimes, witnesses don't always tell the truth to our government," he said. "This is one of those instances."
Tobin held a key post on the president's re-election team last year but resigned when the phone jamming accusations became public in October 2004.
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