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A campaign culture built on shared online identities is central to both DeMaio and his accuser’s story of what happened.
Zack Brown was a volunteer on Carl DeMaio’s campaign for Congress. Constituents and donors got emails from him. If they responded, they would likely receive an email back bearing Brown’s name.
But Brown did not send them. He says he didn’t even have access to the account that did.
He says he was not the one who sent an anti-Semitic message from the account. Nor did he send one that was graphically homophobic.
To understand DeMaio’s perspective on the allegations of sexual harassment that he believes derailed his campaign, you need to understand the way his campaign used the internet. DeMaio himself admits to some level of anonymous online postings and the use of accounts in other people’s names to get information to the media or public. He and his team also oversaw dozens of deceptive email accounts. These accounts were managed by many people, making it impossible to know whether the person’s whose name was on the email had written the message or even knew what was going out under his or her name.
DeMaio’s system even let unpaid interns ghostwrite messages in the candidate’s name. It let DeMaio ghostwrite messages in other people’s names. And it was a system DeMaio says a former staffer named Todd Bosnich abused. This is at the heart of DeMaio’s view on the scandal.
In DeMaio’s story, you can never actually know when DeMaio is writing you or if it’s someone else pretending to be DeMaio. You also can’t know whether a message you’re receiving from a DeMaio supporter is actually DeMaio in disguise. What’s ironic is this is central to both his and his accuser’s story of what happened. A culture of open sharing of identities went awry.
Both DeMaio and his accuser, Bosnich, claim that emails were sent under their names that were not actually their creations. Based on what I’ve been able to learn about this culture, both of their claims are entirely within the realm of possibility.
For years, DeMaio has pushed the limits of online campaigning and messaging. His campaign spokesman acknowledged to me that his team used “about 30” dummy email accounts.
A dummy email account would be one either under the name of a real person, someone like the well-known local libertarian Richard Rider. Or perhaps it was a pure pseudonym or partial name, like “Liz G.,” who sent an email on Sept. 9 to local environmentalists warning about Rep. Scott Peters’ support from “Big Oil!”
Scroll down on Liz G.’s email, past a long white space, and you’ll find a “Paid for by Carl DeMaio for Congress.”
It’s more than just emails. DeMaio’s team also writes letters and assigns staff to find supporters in the community to put their names on them so they can run as letters to the editor in various newspapers.
And then there are the mass emails. Obviously, personalized fundraising emails are not unique to DeMaio. Just ask anyone on a Democratic email list how many messages they get from Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden or even the president.
But DeMaio has long been on the front end of this innovation and has even reversed it. Rather than subordinates writing pieces in DeMaio’s name, he or his staff would do the opposite ––write messages attributed to subordinates or community members.
DeMaio admitted to me that he sometimes posted on a local blog – SD Rostra – under a pseudonym.
He wouldn’t tell me what the pseudonym was.
Three people close to his previous campaigns say they had to regularly warn DeMaio about posting anonymous comments or emails under fake names recklessly.
This is the system in which Bosnich operated and had some level of responsibility. If you believe DeMaio, then you believe that this guy Bosnich was nothing but an unpaid intern who was allowed to use a glorified title and got one paid assignment that he screwed up and was terminated over.
But you also have to believe that this nobody also was allowed to write messages to the public under DeMaio’s own name.
DeMaio maintains, in fact, that all kinds of people could do that.
And that’s why, he says, so many of the storylines within this scandal boil down to email controversies.
But that’s also why Bosnich’s own claim that anonymous, threatening emails he said he received deserves a hearing. It could also be why emails in his name might not actually be from him. As a rule, many people had regular access to many different campaign email accounts.
There’s more. Bosnich says DeMaio ran this Twitter account called “Truth Sayer” @4SanDiegoNews. It is an anonymous account that lobbed insults at DeMaio’s rivals, including Republican Kirk Jorgensen, one of DeMaio’s opponents in the primary, former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher and Peters’ former staffer Lucas O’Connor.
The Twitter feed’s last message, sent June 16, was an insult directed at former conservative radio host Steve Yuhas, who regularly battles DeMaio and his partner, Johnathan Hale, online.
“The campaign does not know who runs that feed,” wrote DeMaio spokesman Dave McCulloch in response to a list of questions I had.
According to police affidavits released under pressure from NBC 7 San Diego and U-T San Diego, it was clear to Tommy Knepper, DeMaio’s campaign manager, that something was not right with this culture of dummy email accounts on June 6.
A break-in had occurred a week earlier. And Knepper heard that Bosnich, who’d been fired from the campaign, had gone to the media.
Knepper told police that on June 6, an inflammatory email was sent to a company called A.B.B. Management under the Zack Brown dummy account.
“Take that dick out of your mouth and send me some goddamn money!!!!” the email read.
That was not part of the campaign’s approved fundraising messages.
From the affidavits:
Upon being made aware of the emails, Knepper accessed the email account and found that someone had accessed the account at 1:18 a.m. on June 6, 2014 and changed the password. Knepper believes Bosnich was the person responsible for the password change and emails as he was the administrator of the Zack Brown account being terminated.
So who is the real Brown? He’s a young Republican just dipping his toes into a political career.
He tweeted that the DeMaio campaign used his name to create an email address to appeal to college kids and young people for donations and support.
I asked him whether he regretted letting them use his name for an email account like this.
“You live, you learn. You have to do a lot of learning in politics, and I’ve done quite a bit of it,” he wrote.
On May 31, Bosnich, the former DeMaio staffer, described sexual harassment he said he endured from DeMaio to police for the first time. After that, Bosnich avoided the police for a while.
Investigators finally sat down with him again on June 16.
At the meeting, Bosnich presented a printed copy of an email he said he received June 2. The sender account was redacted by police when a judge released their affidavit.
“Todd, your attempt to lie will quickly be rebuffed by facts. And in your own words, no less,” the email said. Apparently to prove they had the goods, the sender included an email exchange between Bosnich and his mother in which Bosnich tells her he was fired from the campaign because of a “huge fuck up.”
Bosnich shared the email with police to show there was an attempt to fabricate his own words. He says he did not send that email. That’s important. Otherwise, the email demonstrates that Bosnich was fired not for confronting DeMaio about harassment but because of his own failure.
Police also confirmed with Bosnich’s mother that she didn’t remember the exchange.
Bosnich began leaking embarrassing internal emails. One, from Knepper, had warned the campaign to watch out for black people at campaign events. They were likely opposition moles, Knepper had written.
Knepper ended up apologizing. So that’s one embarrassing email the campaign acknowledged was real.
But then CityBeat posted another one. In it, DeMaio mocks Peters’ staffer Kate Lyon with a picture of a large woman eating a chicken nugget.
This time, DeMaio refused to address this controversy. He did deny to the U-T that he ever sent the email. Bosnich was one of the recipients of it, and it had been sent many months before their falling out.
DeMaio is implying, without ever actually saying so, that Bosnich sent the email from DeMaio’s account to someday embarrass the candidate with it.
DeMaio also denies sending this controversial email about U-T San Diego. In it, DeMaio bragged to staff that their team were the real authors of a U-T editorial bashing Peters. Bosnich told NBC 7 San Diego that DeMaio and U-T editorial board writer Chris Reed had a close relationship and saw each other often.
Reed flatly denies this.
But it’s also a stretch to think that DeMaio didn’t send the email. Again, it was sent many months before the falling-out with Bosnich. And there were other recipients.
Here’s how it happened: After the U-T published its editorial, DeMaio’s spokesman sent the link to the rest of the campaign.
They looped in a representative of the national Republican Party, who was excited about the material the editorial provided for their own messaging about the race.
Then DeMaio claims credit for the messaging coup, writing “Well, we did wrote (sic) it.” DeMaio’s been known to embellish his role in things.
Now, DeMaio says he never wrote that.
U-T editor Jeff Light put it to me this way on our recent podcast:
“It seemed completely conceivable that that would be a real email,” Light said. “That’s what I told DeMaio, who insists this is among the manipulated, or somebody got into his account, which also could be true.”
But probably wasn’t.
“I told him, look man, that looks like something you would say,” Light said.
DeMaio admits that more than 10 days after he said he fired Bosnich, he still let Bosnich have access to the email system. Campaign spokesman McCulloch told me Bosnich was viewed as a volunteer at this point, even though he had been fired. And so he still had access to campaign email, and was still allowed to come to the campaign office.
McCulloch said in his statement, however, they got spooked enough by Bosnich’s email access that they cut it off and told him to get lost.
But in Bosnich’s story, he was the one who was scared.
It’s probably time we round up everything we know about Bosnich. What has he claimed and what doesn’t add up?
I’ll work on that story next.
Click here to read our earlier story on Peters’ role in the DeMaio scandal.