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Taking Congressional Fight to Extremes

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Opposition research is part of almost every political campaign. But the campaign staff of U.S. Congressman Tim Murphy (R-Upper St. Clair) may have spent part of the 2006 election season doing research on a less likely target: people who wrote letters to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"The following is the information I was able to retrieve on the individuals who wrote negative letters to the editor about you," reads the beginning of a three-page memo dated June 23, 2006. The memo, addressed to "TFM," was apparently written by Murphy campaign manager Justin Lokay.

The memo includes copies of two letters to the Post-Gazette from earlier that month. The first, by Brian Rampolla, criticizes Murphy's claims that a visit to Iraq had shown him the war was going well and getting better by the day. The second, by Christine Gallo, echoes Rampolla's statements.

In addition to Rampolla's and Gallo's addresses and phone numbers, the documents detail Rampolla's voting record and religion, his stances on gun control and abortion, and his place of business -- as well as his supposed support for Rick Santorum's Democratic opponent in the 2000 U.S. Senate race. Gallo's voting record and place of business are also noted in the document.

Rampolla says he was never contacted by anyone from the Murphy campaign about his letter, or anything else. Gallo could not be reached for comment.

"I would have been very interested to discuss it with them," Rampolla says. But it would have been more appropriate to address his concerns in an open forum, he adds.

He acknowledges that by publishing his opinion in the newspaper, he opened himself to some scrutiny. "But," he adds, " ... how did they find [information] out and what use is it to them? The statements about 'I voted for Klink in 2000 election over Santorum' -- how would they know that?"

Other than the (now-outdated) information on where Rampolla worked, none of the information listed could be found using Google. Nor was any of it revealed in the half-dozen other letters Rampolla has had published in the P-G, which have been about the war in Iraq.

No one answered telephone calls and e-mails to Murphy campaign headquarters, and Murphy's communications director, Mark Carpenter, did not return numerous phone calls by press time.

But Murphy's former scheduler, Jayne O'Shaugnessy, recalls seeing the memo in the district office, either on the copier or fax machine, which calls into question whether taxpayer money was used to create it. "It stood out," she said of the document. "I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, here he goes again.'"

Indeed, allegations that Murphy used his Congressional office for campaign work are not new. In the weeks prior to the Nov. 7 election, a media feeding frenzy erupted over such claims made by O'Shaugnessy and other former Murphy staffers. Murphy won his re-election bid easily; O'Shaugnessy says she was terminated from Murphy's staff on Election Day.

But the story has not died. The documents in question have been posted by an unknown party in Murphy's entry on Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia. The memo appears in the section on "Staff Campaigning Controversy."

O'Shaugnessy says she did not post the document on Wikipedia, but says she's glad to see it made public. Having the document online "makes everything so much more credible," she says.

"Politics is dirty. Anybody can find out anything," she adds. But while Murphy's staff may have been preparing the Congressman to call these letter writers, this memo crossed the line, O'Shaugnessy believes, because it required digging and involved private citizens speaking their minds.

For his part, Rampolla says he's angry about the memo, but not surprised: "In the back of my mind I was wondering if there'd be something like this."

It does surprise Marty Marks, a local political activist who managed the campaign of Murphy's Democratic challenger, Chad Kluko, until the campaign ran out of money. Murphy has managed several other Democratic campaigns in the past and says "It's pretty highly unusual to look up individuals" who write letters to the editor against a candidate. Opposition research is fairly common, but gathering dossiers on letter-writers, he says, is "George Orwell, 1984 stuff."

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