Tolbert: DPA Tracker FOIA Request Preceded Media Report On Rutledge

by Jason Tolbert ([email protected]) 133 views 

For those that closely follow Arkansas politics, things got a bit exciting Wednesday evening. A headline from the Associated Press posted shortly after 5:00 pm read “AG hopeful criticized ‘wacko’ parents on abortion.”

The report was based on emails obtained by the AP regarding Republican candidate Leslie Rutledge. According to requests obtained by The Tolbert Report under my own FOIA request, AP reporter Andrew DeMillo submitted a request on September 12 asking for “a copy of any and all emails sent and received by Leslie Rutledge during her time working at the Department of Human Services.”

The headline immediately caused a stir. Rutledge has had a consistent pro-life stance throughout her campaign and prior political involvement so the comments did not jive. Rumors that the emails released by DHS could contain even more damaging information quickly circulated as observers began predicting this would end or greatly damage Rutledge’s campaign.

But shortly after 6:00 pm, the AP retracted the story entirely.  “AP has withdrawn the story on Rutledge email on abortion rights. Her campaign says she was forwarding a comment from a blog,” tweeted DeMillo.

While the email was valid, Rutledge never made such comments. Quite the opposite.

The email was a forward of some comments made on the Arkansas Times blog by a commenter called “Hoglawyer.” Rutledge forwarded the comments to a colleague – Gray Turner – with the subject line “Shame on You.”  Turner quickly admitted the comments were made by him and not by Rutledge.

So how did all this happen?

It appears from the timeline that it all began with a FOIA request made by Teron Reed – an employee of the Democratic Party of Arkansas – on August 18, 2014.  The DPA’s most recent filings with the Secretary of State show biweekly payments to Reed of $250 to $275.  An August AP report stated that Reed works for the party as a tracker filming Republican candidate Asa Hutchinson as he makes campaign stops around the state.

In August, Reed filed the request with Judy Besancon with DHS Office of Chief of Counsel.  The request asks for “access to and copies of any and all emails, letters, memos, and reports sent to or by Leslie Rutledge from August 1, 2006 to March 1, 2007 as well as expenses, travel records, information on dates of employment, and personnel records related to Leslie Rutledge, who served in the Office of Arkansas Department of Human Services.”

In September, subsequent requests followed asking for similar documents not only from the AP but from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and from the Arkansas Times.

A September 4 request from ADG reporter Michael Wickline asks for “a copy of the personnel file for Leslie Rutledge.”  On September 12, the ADG ran a story entitled “Rutledge’s file at agency says ‘do-not-rehire‘.”  The story details Rutledge resignation from DHS in December 2007 where she left to work for the Huckabee for President campaign.  Following her departure, Besancon – at the request of Lisa McGee – changed her file to be coded “do not rehire.”  At this time, DHS has declined to release additional information on the departure. They cannot do so without Rutledge’s permission, which she has not given.

Documents produced from my FOIA request also show two other people filing a FOIA request back in the spring.

David McCoy – a supporter of Rutledge – filed a request on May 16.  It is common for campaigns to do their own research on a candidate to see what all might exist.  That certainly appears to the be the case here.

Also, a Little Rock attorney, Andy Myers, made a request on March 24 with a general document request on Rutledge. A follow up was made on April 16 in which Myers specifically ask for “e-mails sent on December 12 & 13, 2007 which discuss coding Leslie Rutledge as a ‘do not rehire'” as well as “any other correspondence regarding Leslie Rutledge termination or resignation.”

It is unclear who Myers was working for. A phone call and email to Myers were not returned.

Nate Steel – Rutledge’s Democratic opponent – denied knowledge of any opposition research from his campaign and said that he does not know Myers or Reed.  He says that he has tried to run a positive campaign.

“Other than someone from my campaign reading Ms. Rutledge’s financial disclosure, we have not done any opposition research into her background and work history,” said Steel.

A lot of this is inside baseball for most people.  Opposition research is now common place – even expected in today’s political campaign.  But the timeline clearly indicates the hand of the DPA in the negative stories on Rutledge. The FOIA request from the DPA’s tracker was immediately before the flurry of requests from reporters which led to the headlines for Rutledge.

Most likely we will see more of this before the campaign is over. According to the DPA filing, they have already paid $21,830.17 to Reger Research – the DPA’s go-to opposition research firm.