Right-Wing Congressman's Staffers Passing Around Watch-Lists of Citizen-Activists
Staffers of at least one congressional office, Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., distributed "homework" to congressional town hall attendees in the form of a "watch list" featuring photographs, personal information and pointed questions about six activists who are constituents of Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla. The six activists were openly critical of Webster at his town halls earlier this year.
The handout, which also included an email sent by MoveOn to its members instructing them how to be effective at town halls, can be downloaded here (PDF).
Each person featured in the watch list is a resident of Webster's Florida district, several hundred miles from Griffin's Arkansas district. I was able to confirm that none of the people identified in the watch list had attended town halls outside of Central Florida. In fact, the six not even attend Webster town halls on the same dates; their attendance was spread across several of Webster's town halls from April through June.
Although the watch list insinuates that these Florida constituents are professional political operatives, only two work in politics as field organizers for Organize Now, a Florida-based community activist group. A handout instructs attendees to demand that the media ask each of these activists barbed questions, such as whether each one worked for the 2008 Obama campaign. None did.
The watch list suggests that the media ask Reinaldo Vasquez, "Are you or have you ever been, a leader, or a member, or a supporter of OrganizeNow.org, OrganizeFlorida.org, or Moveon.org (sic) or any other Progressive Left group?"
It even suggests that the media ask armed-services veteran Ron Parsell (named in the handout as Don Parsell) about his military service. Parsell's appearance at a spring town hall made local TV news when he identified himself as a veteran and asked Webster tough questions. The watch list suggests the following questions for Parsell: "Are you a military veteran who served in Viet Nam? If yes, what branch of the Services, what military unit and where specifically in Viet Nam did you serve?"
In addition to the watch list, the handout includes an email from a local MoveOn organizer with step-by-step instructions on how to be effective at a congressional town hall event. Attendees who received the handouts said the implication of association was clear. But none work for MoveOn. Most of are not even MoveOn members. What they have in common is that each one, with the exception of Tamecka Pierce, made the local news with questions they posed to Griffin at his town halls.
Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn, remarked, "It is ridiculous that Republicans think that every constituent that stands up and challenges them at a town hall is a MoveOn member. The fact of the matter is their policies are deeply unpopular with the vast majority of Americans -- not just MoveOn members. If Republicans don't want to take questions from their constituents it is probably time for them to find a new line of work."
Organize Now president Tamecka Pierce, who was featured in the handout, had sharper words. "It seems clear that the presentation of these materials is intended to encourage harassment of these citizen activists and to intimidate other citizens from speaking out across America by attacking those who have already spoken out," she said in a public statement from the organization. "This behavior is unfitting for any member of Congress or their Congressional staff and represents a threat to the First Amendment rights of all citizens. This type of state sponsored intimidation, is a troubling, direct danger to our democratic process."
Both those who were featured in the handout and those who received the handout indicated they felt the sting of intimidation. One person featured in the handout is currently looking for work and is now worried that having a name in the press could damage job opportunities.
"This action sends a clear message to constituents: If you disagree, keep quiet or face retribution," said Pierce. "I'm scared to know that if I speak at a public meeting, that the federal government will use their vast taxpayer-funded resources to spread lies and fear across the country. Big government should not be used to intimidate its citizens."
One local activist in Griffin's district, who did not want to be named for fear he would "end up in the next handout," said Griffin's district chief of staff, Carl Vogelpohl, along with two other staffers, was manning the sign-in table where the "watch list" was being distributed, and staffers were instructing attendees that it was their "homework."
One attendee contended that the combination of seeing the handouts and then observing staffers videotaping and photographing the audience created an atmosphere of intimidation at Griffin's town hall.
"Citizens everywhere should be concerned as to whether or not taxpayer dollars and resources were used to profile fellow Americans in an attempt to silence their voices and what role congressional offices or campaigns played in disseminating state-sponsored intimidation of private citizens," said Mike Cantone, political director for Organize Now, who was also profiled in the watch list.
Local organizers in Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina have also seen the handouts, but I was unable to confirm where they originated in those states.
Jonathan Samford, communications director for Congressman Griffin, told me that "the document was prepared by an outside group with the goal of interfering with town halls across the county. It advises folks how to disrupt. I reference it and say that our town halls will be civil and the Arkansans I have spoken with appreciate that," he said.
Webster's office did not return phone calls.