Dirty Tricks

Two anonymous e-mails tell enough of the truth to damage candidates’ reputations

Details of the recent jailbreak in the case of Milton Plummer were “leaked” to the media. Is someone trying to make the incumbent sheriff look bad during election season?

Details of the recent jailbreak in the case of Milton Plummer were “leaked” to the media. Is someone trying to make the incumbent sheriff look bad during election season?

Photo By Deidre Pike

Call them “black ops.” It’s the negative research political candidates do on their opponents. It’s the “So-and-so was arrested for beating his wife,” or “Mrs. Doohickey didn’t register to vote until the day after she declared her candidacy,” or “Do you know who got a DUI back in ‘72?” kind of stuff that populates newspapers and brings indecision to a reporter’s heart.

Of course, like anything in the political realm, it’s not all black and white. Despite the stereotype, most journalists don’t give a damn about who is boning whose husband. The problem for reporters is that some of this anonymous information is news and actually raises some legitimate issues about candidate’s credibility and competence, as opposed to making moral judgments that are viscerally interesting, but relatively unimportant.

The problem for candidates is the public looks poorly upon candidates who take the low road and “go negative.” So what’s a good black operative to do? There’s just one way to handle the issue—anonymously.

With the advent of the Internet and fax machines, anonymously tipping off reporters has become easy. Even the most unsophisticated candidate or supporter knows not to send e-mails from a home account or office fax machine.

“This kind of stuff has proliferated with the Internet,” says University of Nevada, Reno, political science professor Eric Herzik. “It is so easy to send information. People who do it anonymously are basically afraid of retribution. They just don’t want their names associated, but they want to come forward. Whether that’s being forthright or not, well …”

He says that most of the negative political e-mails that he receives are baseless or irrelevant. But the simple fact that they’re anonymous doesn’t mean that they are all false.

With the 2002 primary election just weeks away on Sept. 3, editors at the RN&R have received recently a couple e-mails that fall under the “basis in truth” umbrella, but significantly “spun” so as to damage candidates without telling the whole truth.

One was a forwarded news story from the Orange County Register from March 7, 1992, that reports that William Yacobozzi Jr., a former candidate for senate in California and a current candidate for Nevada State Senate, Washoe District 2, was convicted of sending an impostor to take a paternity test—a felony—and ordered to do six months in jail.

Felons can neither vote nor run for office in Nevada. If Yacobozzi is a felon, that’s a ball buster.

“And now,” to quote radio commentator Paul Harvey, “you’ll hear the rest of the story.”

After Yacobozzi served his time in jail, 86 days, he petitioned the Superior Court of Orange County to “forgive” the felony. There are some crimes, particularly first-timer crimes, in which a judge can set aside a conviction, which for legal intents and purposes is the same as not being convicted. It’s called the “Petition and Order Under P.C. 1203.4” under the California Penal Code.

While the petition specifically states, “The granting of this order does not relieve the defendant of the obligation to disclose this conviction in response to any direct question contained in any questionnaire or application for public office or licensure by any state or local agency,” the Nevada form does not ask for the information.

The California law says, “…he or she shall thereafter be released from all penalties and disabilities resulting from the offense of which he or she has been convicted.”

“In Nevada, if you have been convicted of a felony, but your rights have been restored, then you are eligible to vote,” says Steve George, public information officer for the Nevada Secretary of State’s office, the office in charge of enforcing Nevada election law. “Our candidate form doesn’t ask if you’ve been convicted of a felony; it asks if you are eligible to run for this office. That might include: Are you living in residency? Are you 21 years old? Of course, one of those criteria would be if you are a felon, you’re not eligible. In this case, he would be eligible, because he’s had his rights restored.”

Yacobozzi is understandably upset about the anonymous e-mail, but he didn’t want to speculate as to who might have sent it. He is running in the Republican primary against the incumbent Maurice Washington and Wanda Wright.

“If somebody is hitting below the belt, that means the count is going up,” says Yacobozzi. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that somebody would stoop to this kind of campaign, which I think is terrible.”

Yacobozzi writes in a later e-mail, “I made a mistake, paid the price, and it was dismissed. I am sure you can appreciate how difficult it was having a paternity suit, divorce, criminal indictment and even State Bar proceedings pending all at the same time. I was able to resolve all these matters, dust off, get my California and Nevada brokers licenses, get appointed to two (judicial) benches, teach at numerous universities and move forward. I am, of course, hopeful the voters of District 2, as well as others, will see that I have education and experience, am human, can get through a storm and therefore have that knowledge and strength to be a strong Nevada State Senator.”

The second anonymous e-mail accused Washoe County Sheriff Dennis Balaam of a cover-up with regard to the recent jailbreak from Washoe County Jail by Milton Plummer. Balaam is running for sheriff against William “Bill” Bowen, Jay Small and Daniel Nightingale. The e-mail was sent to the RN&R, KRNV, KOLO, KTVN and the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The e-mail states, among other things, “The following information regarding the escape of inmate Milton Plummer was not released to the public, because administration is trying to cover up details.”

Not so. While many of the statements of fact alleged in the e-mail are true, at least to some degree, a cover-up implies a concerted attempt to keep the public from getting information about the escape, which has simply not been the case. Balaam has been accessible and willing to discuss specifics of the escape with the media. He acknowledges that some things might have been done differently, but he says that places where security was weak have been tightened up.

He doesn’t want to comment on the political motivations of the anonymous e-mailer, but it’s plain that the e-mail left a bad taste in his mouth.

“If they are (employed) within the facility here, they’re not taking the means available to them to get things fixed,” Balaam says. “If it’s outside, then they are probably disgruntled ex-employees anyway. … I don’t want this to become political. That’s not my leadership style. I want to stick to the issues, and the issues are the safety within this community, and I will do everything within my power to make the physical security of this facility as safe as possible with the resources that I have.”

Again, the second e-mail has some basis in truth—there were security problems at the jail that contributed to the escape. But rare breakouts—the last escape was in August 2001—which lead to security improvements, and the accusation of covering up those breaches, are two different things.

Political science professor Herzik says the anonymous tips are part of the political climate these days and, in some ways, they work to erode the system.

“Candidates can’t win in any of this," he says. "It’s a contributing reason why it’s harder to find people who will come forward and run for office. One, you’re going to be subject to this kind of attack, and, two, you don’t dare do this kind of attack. It’s going to make you look petty, but you know your supporters are going to do it, or somebody on your side is going to do it. And then, you have to defend somebody doing this type of activity—'Well, he told the truth, but he shouldn’t have done it anonymously.' "