Josh Kurtz: Montgomery Councilmember Seeks Investigation Into Anonymous Web Attack

By Josh Kurtz

The great writer Pete Hamill once observed that after every mob hit in New York, all the wise guys commiserate and trade “dearies” about who ordered the hit and why.

Much the same took place in Maryland political circles last week, when insiders offered their “dearies” on who arranged the anonymous web hit on Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D).

Anonymous attack websites are nothing new in politics — even in genteel Montgomery County. But there was something especially brazen about the way this one was executed — a hit that any mobster could appreciate.

Then Ervin and her allies chose to protest loudly instead of ignoring it — a decision that carries some political risks, but also potential rewards. Center Maryland has learned that Ervin has retained Joe Sandler, a prominent Democratic election lawyer, and later today will send a letter to the state prosecutor, urging an investigation into whether the anonymous attack represents a violation of state campaign laws.

“I fully support the right of any citizen or group to criticize my positions or record on any issue, any time, in any medium,” Ervin writes in the letter to Deputy State Prosecutor Thomas McDonough. “However, all groups must play by the same set of rules. Maryland law requires that campaign communications paid for by any entity or group clearly identify that entity or group so citizens will know who is behind the communication.”

The website attacking Ervin, a possible candidate for county executive in 2014, was deployed in breathtaking fashion on March 3. Just as the county Democratic Party’s annual winter brunch was about to begin, hundreds of party activists received anonymous text messages directing them to the site.

“See the truth about Valerie Ervin,” the anonymous text said. “Read http://valunmasked.com now. MontCo Dems – enjoy today’s brunch.”

Despite the nasty tone and the sensational headlines, the website carries plenty of indisputable facts, relying heavily on campaign finance data. It rehashes that there was a lien put on the councilwoman’s home for unpaid state income taxes. The site also alleges that Ervin used a template provided by a group affiliated with the conservative Koch brothers on collective bargaining legislation she sponsored. Mentioning the Koch brothers to a roomful of Democrats is like invoking Satan in most churches.

Later in the week, a new section of the website was added attacking Ervin’s finance director, Jeffrey Slavin, who doubles as mayor of Somerset. The website suggests that Slavin exceeded the legal limit in state and local campaign contributions during the 2010 election cycle and is close to doing the same in the 2014 cycle.

Center Maryland has learned that a similar missive was delivered anonymously via email on the same day to members of the Montgomery County legislative delegation in Annapolis. After laying out the same details about Slavin’s campaign contributions, the anonymous author, who purports to be a county employee, writes: “Mr. Slavin is a government official and well-known political confidant to many other elected officials. His flaunting of finance rules shows that the system has no teeth and he feels he can get away with things.”

An electronic paper trail reveals that the attack website was created by a woman named Tara Landis. She’s co-owner of an Annapolis-based firm, Kenefick Communications, which serves several labor unions – and has had a long-standing relationship with MCGEO, the Montgomery County government employees union that has become one of Ervin’s principal critics.

The union paid the firm more than $37,000 for a variety of services in fiscal year 2012, according to MCGEO’s annual filing with the U.S. Department of Labor. So it’s easy to buy the “dearie” that MCGEO, which in 2011 launched a different attack website, therealvalerieervin.com, is behind the new one.

MCGEO officials are not saying anything publicly. But they are privately pointing out to county political insiders that they have taken ownership of their numerous prior attacks on Ervin.

Another “dearie” on the attack site’s authorship was offered last week by David Moon on his Maryland Juice political blog. Moon posited that only a member of the County Council or a council staffer would have access to the all the phone numbers of the Democrats who received the text message the day of the brunch. (Moon, it must be pointed out, has been a paid consultant to at least three of the nine Council members, including Ervin, and served as chief of staff to Nancy Navarro, the current Council president, who launched a “Stand with Valerie” web petition in response to last week’s hit.)

Kenefick Communications, according to sources, is soliciting business from Maryland politicians, so it’s at least conceivable that the firm is now working with an elected official who plotted the attack.

The relationship between Ervin and Montgomery County’s public employee unions — especially MCGEO – has been tortured, colored to a great degree by officials’ decision to abrogate labor agreements with the county workforce for budgetary reasons, which was made during the year Ervin served as Council president. But there are other points of contention here, including the fact that Ervin for years worked as an organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, MCGEO’s parent.

MCGEO’s relentless attacks have come to seem like bullying, a union at its worst. And the spectacle of a union whose president, Gino Renne, was arrested and tried for spousal abuse in 2010 (he was acquitted after his wife refused to testify against him), beating up on an African-American woman, is not pretty.

The union just negotiated a good contract with County Executive Ike Leggett (D) — who, no doubt, is trying to buy labor peace as he gears up for what is looking like a run for a third term. That suggests Renne remains an effective leader, at least from his membership’s point of view. But surely, whether MCGEO is responsible for the new website or not, the rank-and-file has got to wonder whether their leaders’ fixation with Ervin is smart politics.

Ervin is not without fault or flaw here. Some critics maintain that she overreacts, that she appears way too thin-skinned, whenever attacks like these come her way.

And by choosing to publicize the newest attacks, is Ervin giving them more credence than they deserve? Halfway through last week, she looked like a victim of a smear campaign. But when The Washington Post started asking about some of the allegations on the anonymous website, Ervin was put on the defensive, not a happy place for any politician to be.

Especially damaging were the questions about Ervin being a paid consultant for Congresswoman Donna Edwards, a lifelong friend. What did she do to earn that money — the accounts offered by the Ervin and Edwards camps did not jibe — and why were the payments made just before she repaid her delinquent taxes?

Ervin is back on the offensive now, with her gambit to go to the prosecutor. While the website does not specifically talk about political campaigns, she argues in her letter that what the anonymous attackers have done amounts to electioneering, citing numerous sections of state election law.

“By flagrantly and deliberately ignoring this law, the group or entity behind this anonymous smear website is depriving the citizens of Montgomery County of information to which they are legally entitled,” she writes.

We have not heard the last of this.

Editor’s Note: This column has been updated from an earlier version to correct the title for Jeffrey Slavin.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Peter Principle

Louie, Louie

Inside Out, Outside In?

Alex Mooney, Cas Taylor, the Ehrlichs, Doug Duncan AND MORE

Anne Arundel Agonistes