BREAKING: State Rep. Jesse White might be a troll (UPDATED)

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State Rep. Jesse White, a Democrat from southwestern Pennsylvania, has long been a foe of the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry. But he may be as prone to dangerous flare-ups as a shoddily constructed gas well.

Last night, KDKA-TV's Andy Sheehan reported that White may have been was (see below) criticizing gas-industry supporters under cover of online aliases. Among those targeted by the online attacks, Sheehan reported, is Janice Gibbs, a seemingly sweet-natured grandmother who lives in White's own district. Gibbs voiced support for drilling on local online forums, and was attacked by other users as a "classic uneducated yinzer" and a "puppet" for drilling companies.

Gibbs tells KDKA she thought White, who'd responded to her using his official account, might be behind the anonymous criticism as well. And Sheehan reports that the same online aliases were used to post critical comments on a website operated by Energy in Depth -- an industry PR group. EID, it seems, traced the IP address back to a computer linked to White's state e-mail account.

Doing some internet sleuthing of his own, Sheehan also reports that an anti-fracking website was originally registered to White (though the registration later changed).

When confronted by Sheehan, White didn't exactly deny setting up the website or engaging in online criticism. (UPDATED: He has since confirmed the report, and apologized -- sort of. See below.) Instead, he told Sheehan, "I have no comment to these repeated personal and political attacks put on me by the propaganda wing of the natural gas industry [including] companies that are paid advertisers for your network." And he stuck to that line repeatedly.

Republicans seized the opportunity to link White with other Democrats, especially those who may challenge Gov. Tom Corbett's re-election bid next year. The state GOP released an e-mail statement -- headlined "Shame on Jesse White. Where do the Democrats for Governor Stand?" -- linking to the KDKA report and including a statement that reads, in part:

Do Allyson Schwartz, Rob McCord, John Hanger, Tom Wolf [all potential Democratic challengers] and others share Rep. White's views that people supporting good paying jobs in the shale supporters are 'trolls'? The Pennsylvania Democratic Party, along with Schwartz, McCord, Hanger, Wolf or of its candidates seeking higher office should not only demand an apology from Rep. White, but use this opportunity to clarify their positions on this job-creating industry.

The GOP also noted that just days ago, White voted in favor of a bill, House Bill 764, that makes it a crime to use online aliases to engage in harassment, stalking, intimidation, or similar offenses.

It's not clear that the posts in question would constitute such behavior, even if the bill were law. (The measure is currently sitting in a Senate committee.) To me, the snippets Sheehan showed looked ill-mannered, but not at all threatening. Anyway, if being called names online constitutes harassment, we should probably toss the entire Internet in jail. So maybe the more immediate question is ... is Jesse White really dumb enough to go onto a gas-industry website and post stuff from a computer that could be linked to his state e-mail address? Could he possibly be dumb enough to think that EID wouldn't try to trace that stuff, and pass it along to a journalist at an opportune moment?

For White's sake, and for the sake of the gas-drilling opponents who have championed him, you have to hope the answer is "no," he is not that dumb. Gas drillers have, after all, tried burning White before, releasing e-mailed correspondence in Which white reportedly "focused on two fundraisers that [gas driller] Range [Resources] either hosted for Mr. White, D-Cecil, or had indicated officials would attend." According to a Post-Gazette account, the emails show White, a one-time industry ally, "raising concerns about who would be coordinating his fundraiser that Range was hosting in March 2010, and later criticizing how much that event raised, saying it fell 'considerably short of the intended target.'" Those e-mails were reported last fall; judging from Sheehan's report, the comments on EID's website appear to have gone up earlier this year.

And while not everyone understands how the internets work, if anyone should understand how problematic online privacy can be, you'd think it would be White. He has, after all, introduced a bill protecting online privacy by barring employers from requiring workers or potential hires from revealing usernames and passwords for social-media sites. And even if that bill were to pass, he cautioned in a statement, "Social media users should always use caution about what they post online." After all, "employers do have time-tested and effective screening methods to secure quality employees."

Presumably, that would be true even if your employers are the voters of the 46th legislative district. So let's hope Jesse White has been keeping it classy!

UPDATED: Alas, no. Not long after this was posted, White made the following announcement on his Facebook page:

For the past several years, I have asked the tough questions few have been willing to ask to ensure natural gas drilling is done the safest way possible in Pennsylvania. My efforts have drawn the attention of multi-million dollar energy industry groups like Energy In Depth, who have published numerous misleading and personal attacks against me in an attempt to distract people from the real issues and discredit my character. These attacks have included anonymous or fictitious posts on various websites.

On occasion, I have exercised my First Amendment rights and responded in kind, which was an error in judgment that I regret. To be clear, I did not use government resources while posting comments on these sites.

I apologize to Janice Gibbs and Donald Roessler for any action I’ve taken that may have been offensive or hurtful, and I will be extending a private invitation to meet with them to discuss our viewpoints face-to-face in an effort to find common ground and foster a more professional and respectful level of communication.

I will not stop asking the tough questions and standing up for what I believe in, because the stakes are too high to allow petty differences to distract us from ensuring that we're developing our natural resources in a responsible way that generates an economic benefit to our community but also protects the people who live and work here.

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