Despite numerous cautionary tales in recent years focusing on the Pennsylvania Legislature, it is almost beyond the pale to imagine an elected official using official taxpayer-funded resources for blatantly political purposes.
But a nearly two-month investigation by Goose in the Gallows has revealed that email addresses submitted to the official, taxpayer-funded website of state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Monongahela – who is facing her first re-election bid on Nov. 6 – were then used to send fundraising solicitation emails from her official campaign email account.
The trail of evidence does not stop in Bartolotta’s district: It leads directly to the state Capitol in Harrisburg, where a questionable contract by the State Senate Republican Caucus (SSRC) to provide telephone town hall meetings purely for legislative use could potentially implicate a large number of Republican Senators – both past and present.
WHY THIS MATTERS:
Using taxpayer-funded resources for political purposes is not only a crime but one with substantial precedent in Pennsylvania over the past 11 years.
In 2007, a wide-ranging investigation by then-Attorney General Tom Corbett led to criminal charges filed against dozens of legislators and staffers. The scandal, which became known as “Bonusgate,” took down some of the most influential members of the Legislature, including House Speakers John Perzel (R) and H. William DeWeese (D), as well as Senate Appropriations Chairman Vincent Fumo (D).
Anecdotally, DeWeese, who hails from the Greene County portion of the 46th District, is now in a romantic relationship with Bartolotta and has been actively visible on the campaign trail for her re-election.
On June 11, 2018, Jacob Redfern visited Bartolotta’s official taxpayer-funded website and signed up for notifications about future telephone town hall meetings hosted by the first-term senator.
Redfern had been recently hired by James Craig, the Democratic nominee who would be squaring off against Bartolotta in the 2018 midterm election on November 6.
By signing up for notifications about these telephone town halls, Redfern’s intent was clear: To conduct the time-honored political tradition of basic opposition research.
Redfern, who provided Goose in the Gallows with an affidavit signed under penalty of perjury, created a brand new Gmail account – firstname.lastname@example.org – and signed up for Bartolotta’s telephone town halls within moments of its creation.
He noted that it was the first and only time he used the email account.
Immediately after signing up for town hall updates, Redfern received a confirmation from the email address email@example.com, which thanked him for signing up for updates.
There was no further official communication from Bartolotta’s taxpayer-funded website, and records from the senator’s official page on the Vekeo website show her last telephone town hall took place on May 22, 2018.
Then, on July 6, 2018, Jacob Redfern received an email at his “clean” firstname.lastname@example.org address.
The correspondence was sent from the address email@example.com and featured a disclaimer at the bottom claiming it had been paid for by “Camera for Senate.”
The content of the email, which was signed by political campaign manager Haley Bova, was an explicit solicitation seeking volunteers and political campaign donations.
Then, on Aug. 16, 2018, Redfern received another email from the Bartolotta campaign, which was again signed by Bova. This email, titled, “Help the #CameraCrew reach our August goals,” was composed of a similar solicitation for fundraising and volunteers.
A third email from the Bartolotta for Senate campaign arrived in Redfern’s inbox on Oct. 1, 2018, again signed by campaign manager Bova. The title of this email was “36 days away” – an explicit reference to the Nov. 6 midterm election.
This email also contains an allegation by Bartolotta’s campaign that opponent James Craig was under active criminal investigation over an issue regarding his nominating petitions. This allegation, which formed the basis of a series of highly negative campaign ads, has since been repudiated as completely untrue. According to multiple news reports, the relevant law enforcement officials confirmed that Craig was never the subject of a criminal investigation.
After the receipt of the July 6 email, Redfern created another new email account – firstname.lastname@example.org – using it to sign up for political campaign updates from Bartolotta’s official campaign website, which is www.cameraforsenate.com.
Upon signing up, this new account received the second and third political emails on Aug. 16 and Oct. 1, with the same timestamp as the political emails sent to his original email account after he input his information on Bartolotta’s Senate website.
WHY IT MATTERS:
There is no legal explanation for how an email address given solely to Senator Bartolotta’s official legislative website could ever wind up on her political campaign email list.
So the question remains: How did voter information input on a taxpayer-funded website to receive taxpayer-funded alerts to a taxpayer-funded town hall end up being used for political purposes?
To get to the bottom of that, you first have to understand the nature of the contract between the SSRC and the company that was paid to facilitate telephone town halls.
In late December 2016, the SSRC entered into a contract with a company called Citizen Dialog LLC to provide telephone town halls for Senate Republicans.
The $250,000 contract runs from Jan. 1, 2017 through Dec. 31, 2019, and was signed by Citizen Dialog Senior Vice President Larry Telford.
WHY IT MATTERS:
But what is Citizen Dialog LLC? A simple Google search yields shockingly little information: There is no active website; no social media presence to speak. All that’s publicly available is the name of its senior vice president – Larry Telford – as well as a phone number and physical mailing address in Annapolis, Maryland.
But here’s the thing: The phone number and mailing address for Citizen Dialog is identical to a company nationally known for helping Republicans win elections – Targeted Creative Communications (also known as TC2).
When Goose in the Gallows called Citizen Dialog, a man who identified himself as Eric answered the phone, “TC2.” When asked if Larry Telford was available, the man indicated that he would take down the reporter’s personal information and relay it to Telford.
So another question arises: Is Citizen Dialog LLC nothing more than a shell corporation? Could it be that $250,000 in taxpayer funds are being used to collect voter information for political purposes under the guise of improving communication between senators and their constituents?
According to the evidence? Yes.
CITIZEN DIALOG LLC and TARGETED CREATIVE COMMUNICATIONS- ONE AND THE SAME?
A search of the company on the Commonwealth of Virginia State Corporation Commission lists Citizen Dialog as an LLC formed on Feb. 6, 2007. The principal office location is 106 S Columbus St, Alexandria VA 22314.
The registered agent for the company is a man named Dan Hazelwood.
Hazelwood is well-known within national Republican circles as a leading political consultant and direct-mail firm, boasting of a client list that includes George W. Bush, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and the California Senate Republican Caucus. None of the numerous biographies available online mention any connection to Citizen Dialog LLC.
Hazelwood is also the registered agent and founder of Targeted Creative Communications, which also has an official corporate address of 106 S Columbus St, Alexandria VA 22314.
The only person who seems to have any connection to Citizen Dialog LLC is Telford, the signatory on the $250,000 contract with the PA Senate Republicans.
A cursory examination of Citizen Dialog LLC shows that the company is by all measures the same as Targeted Creative Communications.
While Citizen Dialog LLC has no active website, the archive at web.archive.org (commonly known as The Wayback Machine) shows the domain www.citizendialog.com had its site taken down sometime between March 15, 2018, and Aug 7, 2018. The last snapshot taken on March 15, 2018, shows an extremely basic website with no listed phone number. The only contact information listed is that of Larry Telford via email@example.com.
Taking the WaybackMachine search all the way back to the first entry for citizendialog.com dated Feb. 7, 2011, the result is just another basic website- this one for Targeted Creative Communications.
The site, an exact duplicate of which is still active at www.targetedcreative.com, states “Targeted Creative Communications a is proud of its record of electing Republican candidates. Learn how we can help you.”
The page has the same phone number and address as those listed for Citizen Dialog LLC.
But the links between the two companies extends beyond bricks and mortar. An article in Roll Call published Oct. 5, 2010, mentions former NRCC (National Republican Campaign Committee) Director Larry Telford as a “partner with the GOP direct-mail firm Targeted Communications.”
Again: When a Goose in the Gallows reporter called the only number listed for either company, a man who identified himself as an employee of Targeted Creative Communications answered. He acknowledged that Telford worked there, but requests to speak with Telford for this story went unanswered.
Based on the substantial evidence obtained as part of our investigation, Goose in the Gallows can say with a high degree of certainty that Citizen Dialog LLC is a nothing more than a shell company for Targeted Creative Communications. Furthermore, the taxpayer money intended for Citizens Dialog LLC as part of the $250,000 telephone town hall contract with Senate Republicans is ultimately landing in the hands of Targeted Creative Communications.
WHY IT MATTERS:
Perhaps the best way to answer that question is with another question: Why does Citizen Dialog LLC, which is clearly not an independent operating company, even exist? Could it be that somebody didn’t want the name Targeted Creative Communications, a firm known for political – not legislative work – to appear on the Senate contract to avoid suspicion?
Typically, this corporate equivalent of “changing cabs” to avoid scrutiny is primarily for situations where there would be a definite downside if the real financial links became known.
THE KOCH CONNECTION?
Further investigation of Targeted Creative Communications and its employees turned up another eyebrow-raising connection. The Linkedin profile of one of the company’s project managers, Jennifer (Voldness) Phillippe, listed job duties that included, “direct mail operations and mail plans. Provide client relation and direct marketing services to federal and state political campaigns.”
But Targeted Creative Communications is not listed as Ms. Phillippe’s primary employer, despite being employed there since May 2014.
Instead, her Linkedin profile lists her primary employer as the Charles Koch Institute, also in Arlington, Virginia.
Beginning in July 2016, Phillippe assumed the title of Event Producer with the Koch organization, where her duties include overseeing, executing, and evaluating events for the Charles Koch Institute and Charles Koch Foundation.
WHY IT MATTERS:
Brothers Charles and David Koch are each worth an estimated $53.7 billion according to an Aug. 18 report by Forbes. In addition to their wide-ranging business portfolios, the brothers are well-established financial powerhouses in Republican politics nationwide, spending large sums of money to promote political candidates who will help enact their highly conservative, pro-business agenda.
Goose in the Gallows did not uncover a direct link between taxpayer funds paid to Citizen Dialog LLC/Targeted Creative Communications and the Koch Institute. However, the odd framing of the signing entities and the direct relationship between an employee of Targeted Creative Communications and the Charles Koch Institute draws additional scrutiny and reinforces questions as to why a shell company like Citizens Dialog LLC was used for the Senate contract for telephone town halls.
THE VEKEO FILES
So between Citizen Dialog LLC and Targeted Creative Communications, which company actually conducted the telephone town halls as part of the $250,000 contact with the Senate Republican Caucus?
Neither of them.
Instead, Vekeo, a Colorado-based communications company touting itself as a provider of “live conversations with people who matter,” conducted the telephone town halls.
A cursory review shows that Vekeo appears to be the company responsible for the overwhelming majority of the work associated with organizing and conducting the telephone town hall meetings.
The company, which works with non-profits, sports figures, political campaigns, and government officials, maintains a website for each of its clients’ events. A review of those clients includes the following current or former elected officials in the Pennsylvania Legislature. For the sake of clarity, the list consists of two sections- those who would have been under the contract with Citizen Dialog LLC and those whose association with Vekeo would not have been part of the agreement.
Please note this list does not include anyone who is a current member of the Pennsylvania House or Senate Democratic Caucuses.
- State Senator Scott Martin
- State Senator Rich Alloway
- State Senator David Argall
- State Senator Ryan Aument
- State Senator Camera Bartolotta
- State Senator Jake Corman
- State Senator John DiSanto
- State Senator Mike Folmer
- State Senator Stewart Greenleaf
- State Senator Tom Killion
- State Senator Wayne Langerholc, Jr.
- State Senator Charles T. McIllhinney
- PA Senate Republican Caucus
- State Senator John Rafferty
- State Senator Guy Reschenthaler
- State Senator Joe Scarnati
- State Senator Mario Scavello
- State Senator Lloyd Smucker
- State Senator Pat Stefano
- State Senator Randy Vulakovich
- State Senator Scott Wagner (current Republican nominee for governor)
- State Senator Kim Ward
- State Senator Don White
- State Senator Gene Yaw
- A Commonwealth Crisis, a series of five telephone town halls sponsored by the PA Senate Republican Caucus to highlight the statewide public health crisis of Heroin and Opioid Abuse in Pennsylvania.
The following individuals who use Vekeo for telephone town halls are not included as part of the Citizen Dialog LLC contract and therefore have separate arrangements for paying for their calls:
- Congressman Brendan Boyle
- State Representative Bryan Cutler
- Congressman Dwight Evans
- Congressman Mike Kelly
- PA House Republican Caucus
- Congressman Scott Perry
- Congressman Keith Rothfus
- State Representative Tom Quigley
- State Representative Marcy Toepel
- State Representative Judy Ward
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
More than 20 members of the State Republican Caucus, including Camera Bartolotta, actively use Vekeo for telephone town halls under the contract with Citizen Dialog LLC/Targeted Creative Communications.
FOLLOW THE DATA
When Jacob Redfern went to Bartolotta’s official taxpayer-funded website and signed up to receive information about her telephone town halls, he immediately received a response email from firstname.lastname@example.org thanking him for signing up and letting him know he “will be called for all State Senator Camera Bartolotta events.” The sign-up form on her official website clearly states:
“By clicking the button below, I provide my signature expressly authorizing Senator Bartolotta and Vekeo to contact me and send me information regarding their office, telephone meetings, upcoming events or other legislative information or opportunities via live, automated or prerecorded calls, text messages or emails to my telephone number and email address that I entered above.”
The language of the form, along with the confirmation email, clearly shows that any email address submitted through the Bartolotta’s official Senate website goes to Vekeo for sure. Whether the address also goes to the Senate Republican Caucus cannot be ascertained, and neither Vekeo, Citizen Dialog LLC, or Bartolotta returned multiple requests for comment.
But what we do know for sure is that the email address somehow went from Vekeo to the email list of the Camera for Senate political campaign. An examination of all relevant campaign finance reports found no evidence of Vekeo, Citizen Dialog LLC, or Targeted Creative Communications as a vendor of Bartolotta’s re-election campaign.
The lack of campaign finance reporting means that any interaction between the campaign and any of these companies was not reported as a legal expenditure or an in-kind contribution as required under Pennsylvania Campaign Finance Laws.
According to her Vekeo page, Senator Bartolotta’s last telephone town hall took place on May 22, 2018, which raises additional questions as to why an email submitted on June 11, 2018, would wind up anywhere.
More importantly, how did email@example.com and perhaps other email addresses obtained through taxpayer-funded resources wind up on the email list of Camera for Senate? Based on an extensive investigation of the available evidence, there are two leading theories as to how this could have occurred.
THEORY 1: AN INSIDE JOB
Under this theory, the email addresses submitted through the official Senate signup form for telephone town halls were sent directly to the Bartolotta political campaign. The transmission of these email addresses could have occurred by Vekeo sending the data to the campaign, or by either Citizen Dialog LLC/Targeted Creative Communications to the campaign.
This theory would almost certainly mean that the Senate Republican Caucus authorized the siphoning of email addresses to political campaigns, either implicitly or explicitly. It is also the kind of activity that would likely take place with a nod and a wink to prevent a paper trail.
Should this be the case, the criminal culpability goes far beyond the Bartolotta campaign and rises to the levels of conduct that fueled BonusGate over a decade ago. It would mean that a legislative caucus disguised political operations under the cloak of official legislative business to gain a substantial political advantage using taxpayer-funded resources.
One element lending itself to this theory is the use of Citizen Dialog LLC as a shell company to sign the contract with the Senate Republican Caucus. If there is nothing to hide, then why take the extra step to limit the exposure of Targeted Creative Communications or Vekeo for that matter?
THEORY 2: A SENATOR GONE ROGUE?
Under this theory, the criminal culpability lies not with any of the companies involved, but with the Bartolotta campaign itself. Presumably, Vekeo sends the email addresses received not to any political campaigns, but to the servers of the Senate Republican Caucus for the ostensible purpose of updating constituent records.
Each legislative caucus maintains a constituent tracking system for logging constituent communications like phone calls and emails, as well as keeping addresses and phone numbers for newsletters and other constituent outreach. These databases are specific to each caucus and are only accessible by caucus staff and the legislators themselves.
So how does the firstname.lastname@example.org email address get from the Senate Republican servers to the Bartolotta campaign? Under this theory, there is only one plausible way, and that is somebody went into the official Senate Republican database, exported the email addresses of Bartolotta’s constituents, and added them to the Bartolotta for Senate campaign email list.
If this is in fact what happened, then somebody committed a clear criminal act. There is just no way email addresses could jump from official Senate Republican servers to a political campaign. A human being would have had to knowingly log in, export the information, and give it to the campaign. The criminal intent to use taxpayer resources for political gain is nearly impossible to ignore.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
How the email@example.com email address landed in the Bartolotta political campaign database is the undeniably key question in this entire sorted affair. Going forward is, unfortunately, a classic “good news/bad news” situation.
The good news is that one way or another, there is a clear data trail that would effectually answer the question of how the email addresses ended up with the Bartolotta campaign. If it were through Vekeo or Citizen Dialog LLC/Targeted Creative Communications, the incoming data to the Bartolotta campaign would show the source.
If the data came from someone who accessed the Senate Republican database, there would actually be two data trails; one made by whoever exported the information from Senate computer servers, and another by whoever uploaded it into the Bartolotta campaign database. The data trail from the Senate Republican servers would be especially damning because it would show who logged in, which computer they logged in from, and what they exported from the system. In other words, it would be a smoking gun.
The bad news is that none of this information is publicly available. The Senate Republican Caucus would unquestionably deny any Right to Know request, and neither Vekeo, Citizen Dialog LLC/Targeted Creative Communications, or the Bartolotta for Senate political campaign are subject to Pennsylvania’s Right to Know laws.
What Comes Next?
Barring a voluntary release of information, the only way to know for sure what happened would be as part of a criminal investigation. Several law enforcement agencies could initiate this investigation, including Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, or the District Attorneys in Dauphin County (which includes Harrisburg), or Washington, Beaver, or Greene Counties, which are all part of the 46th Senate District.
Attempts to reach Senator Camera Bartolotta, Larry Telford, Citizen Dialog LLC, Targeted Creative Communications, and Vekeo for comment regarding this story went unanswered.
Editor’s Note: We think transparency is important, so we want to make sure we make some important disclosures about the authors of this piece, Jesse White and Amanda B. Gillooly. White, the editor and publisher of Goose in the Gallows, is a former Democratic lawmaker who served the 46th Legislative District, which includes portions of the 46th Senatorial District. A Democratic strategist, White is also an independent writer and resident of Cecil Township (part of Sen. Camera Bartolotta’s Senate District). Gillooly, who formerly worked as a reporter and editor at various news publications in the 46th District, served as communications director for Sen. Bartolotta’s 2014 election campaign. Neither White nor Gillooly have any affiliation with the Bartolotta or Craig campaigns.