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The Hatchet Men 

Need to cut down a candidate? These are your guys. Jeremy J. Alford reports on the growing role of oppositional research in Louisiana politics.

As much as humanly possible, Andrew Koneschusky is trying to blend into the concrete facade of the State Capitol steps. Like everyone else gathered in the shadow of Huey Long's grave on this weekday afternoon, Koneschusky is here to watch U.S. Rep. David Vitter, a Metairie Republican, carry forth during a press conference on welfare reform. Only there's one difference. Koneschusky is here as a political operative, a hit man for the state Democratic Party.

Koneschusky prefers a different title, something along the lines of "communications director." But his primary function is clear. He's trying to tear down the statements of Vitter, a candidate for Louisiana's open U.S. Senate seat, and find inconsistencies in his record.

In the rough and tumble world of oppositional research -- called "oppo" research by politicos -- he is one of many.

Koneschusky laughs when he recalls the way Vitter's staff provided him with a press package, as if the Democratic operative was a member of the media. A low profile is essential to people in his trade. But as soon as Vitter wraps up his speech, Koneschusky blows his cover and starts offering spin to the press. He hits Vitter on his votes on overtime pay, displaying the bravado of in-your-face oppo work. Vitter, standing five feet away, responds in kind. Waving a finger in the air, the candidate addresses the opposition personally: "Your understanding is dead wrong. Y'all have lied over and over and over."

Meanwhile, Koneschusky never had cover at all, says a Vitter spokesperson. "I knew who he was," says Mac Abrams, the campaign's communications director. "I thought he might as well have a copy of our stuff."

It was a day of spy vs. spy at the Louisiana Capitol. But despite the dramatic undertones, the event was par for the course. Opposition research, as well as the tactics and secretive operatives attached to it, is a major element of modern campaigning -- and as old as Machiavelli himself.

The state Republican Party is tracking Democratic candidates, digging up their old voting records and remarks from years ago, and the Democratic Party is doing the same to GOP contenders. While most of the party work is centered on the U.S. Senate race, the congressional campaigns are using external firms or guns-for-hire to oversee their covert activities. As Bill Bryan, a political consultant and former press secretary for the Louisiana campaign of President Bill Clinton, puts it, the ultimate goal of this work varies from one camp to another. Some float negative stories -- "hit pieces" -- in an effort to sink a candidate. Others spread information just to "goad a reaction out of their opponent."

To reach voters, campaigns funnel opposition research through reporters, who sift through spin and subjective copy. Some reporters argue that information gleaned from operatives should be treated as nothing more than unsubstantiated leads. Others contend hit pieces have grown more credible in recent years. Yet reporters themselves are at times becoming expendable. The Internet and a nonstop 24-hour news cycle have sent oppo research into overdrive; campaign finance figures, speeches and voting records are a now mouse click away.

Despite these changes, one thing remains unchanged: You will always find an operative behind the curtain, pulling the strings.

THIS SUMMER, the Louisiana Democratic Party shipped in Koneschusky from Vermont, where he served as deputy press secretary for presidential hopeful Howard Dean. He's a long way from his home in Staten Island, N.Y., but Koneschusky is already well adjusted to the ways of bayou politics.

Traditionally, his job is one delegated to young, energetic staffers. At 23, Koneschusky says he is young enough to handle the brutal hours of oppo research. His corner cubicle in the party's Baton Rouge headquarters is a nerve center of counter-intelligence -- videotapes labeled "Vitter" stack up against the wall, digital recording equipment is propped up on tripods, and hours of footage are cataloged on a desktop computer.

There are four major candidates in the race -- including Democrats state Treasurer John Kennedy, U.S. Rep. Chris John and state Rep. Arthur Morrell. But Koneschusky is only concerned with one contender. "I'm anti-Vitter," he says. "I'm not pro-John and I'm not pro-Kennedy."

His work is proof of that. When asked about hit pieces he has floated on Vitter since July, Koneschusky hands over a stack of press releases a half-inch thick, attacking the Republican on everything from opposing the creation of the 9/11 Commission to encouraging corporate tax evaders -- claims the Vitter camp disputes.

Opposition research conjures up images of forgotten arrest records and shady real estate deals, but Koneschusky says his work is "mostly all records-based research," centered on what politicos call "votes and quotes." He'll spend hours on his laptop searching through legislative records and speeches in hopes of finding something sexy enough to insert into the upcoming news cycle. "Or you can try and create the news," he adds.

Despite cries of outrage to the contrary, he insists the press releases that originate on his computer are neither whimsical nor fictional. "It's about my credibility and the credibility of the party," Koneschusky says. "No one will believe you if you just start putting out lies. Everything I do is to prompt one question: ŒWhy?'"

Koneschusky is always on. During a phone call, when asked how things are going, he tears into a breathless tirade about Vitter being noncommittal on the reimportation of cheaper prescription drugs. For the record, Vitter says he voted in favor of drug reimportation in 2003 and has penned letters trying to get a roll call vote on the issue in the Upper Chamber this year. One of his campaign commercials is dedicated to the topic.

But Koneschusky's crown jewel has nothing to do with pharmaceuticals. He contends the story with the most legs, or greatest media coverage over an extended period of time, involves money. Like many other Republican candidates for office this year, Vitter took campaign money from one of the political action committees overseen by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a GOP powerhouse from Texas. Specifically, Vitter received $10,000 from Americans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, or ARMPAC. Two people associated with DeLay, and his political action committees -- ARMPAC and TRMPAC -- were handed felony indictments just a few weeks ago in Austin, Texas, for money laundering and violating campaign finance laws.

ARMPAC was named in the original indictment, but the grand jury indictment did not include the committee from which Vitter received money. Still, Democratic operatives are raising a stink. "If I were them, I would return the money and try to distance myself from a felony indictment," Koneschusky says. Vitter, meanwhile, has described the hit as nothing more than partisan politics, adding he would look into returning the money if it were actually tainted.

NOT EVERY CAMPAIGN or political interest has the resources to hire a dedicated hit man like Koneschusky, although most will admit they'd like one in their arsenal. At the state Republican Party, staffers share responsibility for oppo research. Party executive director Jon Bargas shoulders most of the work. Without the aid of surveillance equipment and undercover tactics, Bargas searches the Internet for inconsistencies or gaps in the actions of his Democratic opposition.

"This is a smaller operation with a smaller budget," Bargas says. "We have no hired gun. We just kind of do it ourselves. It's a simple matter of monitoring the news in many respects. From the beginning of time, this has been what political discourse is about -- pointing out where your opponent is wrong. It's never come up in a discussion before that we should follow around our opposition or show up where they're going to be. That's kind of shady activity. You can be just as effective with what we're doing."

Actually, the state GOP just started churning out its hit pieces last month. Kennedy is on the receiving end of a few criticisms by the Republicans -- mostly through word-of-mouth -- but John is apparently the primary target. Some believe Vitter would fare better against Kennedy in a runoff than with John. Bargas contends the reason has more to do with a lack of a voting record and Kennedy's reluctance to take stances on serious issues.

"That's the advantage of a candidate that has no record," Bargas says. "It does come back to haunt them, though, because people want to know where they stand. It's 90 percent of the reason why most of our releases are centered around John." Bargas is also quick to note to anyone who will listen that Kennedy "flip-flopped" on the issue of abortion, citing comments in support of legalized abortion made in 1991 when he ran for attorney general, compared to Kennedy's anti-abortion stance today in the super-heated Senate race.

Jason Redmond, Kennedy's campaign manager, says his team is not prepared to contribute to the "Washington mudfight." Still, he says, oppo research is a major tool for all the campaigns in the Senate race. "Candidate research is essential in any campaign, from both a defensive and offensive point of view," he says. "Voting records are voting records. Public records are public records. It all has to be evaluated in order to run an effective campaign for any office. Do the campaigns for U.S. Senate employ such research? Yes. Does that mean a negative campaign is inevitable? Not from our perspective."

Zac Wright, John's press secretary, is far from indifferent. Nearly every hit piece issued by Bargas this election cycle has been a swipe at his candidate -- from John voting against reimportation of cheaper drugs, then deciding to support them in the Senate race, to the congressman's early non-committal support of a gay marriage ban. (In recent weeks, John has gone on record as supporting a U.S. constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.)

Bargas says the party is trying to import the strategy its national counterparts used against former Vice President Al Gore in the last presidential election. The goal is not to embarrass John, he says. It's to force his hand on hard-to-explain votes and conflicting statements. "We're trying to show there's some pattern of inconsistency here," Bargas says. "There are times we send these releases out and get no feedback, but they are being used for background."

Wright says he has received very few press calls regarding the Republican releases and agrees they aren't being heavily covered. Nonetheless, he gets hot-tempered when the subject comes up. "There's a consistent lack of fact checking by their research operation," Wright says. "People don't seem to be giving these attacks much credit because there's so many factual errors."

THESE DAYS, VOTERS can find most oppo research on the Internet. But the media still determines whether research turns into a major story. In the end, campaign reporters can either kill a story or breathe journalistic life into it.

John Hill, chief of the Gannett Capital Bureau in Baton Rouge, has been covering Louisiana politics since 1969. He says opposition research didn't make a big splash on the state scene until the early 1980s, at which time hit pieces were handed out to the press in person, or slipped into in-boxes. Over the years, Hill saw the fax machine come into play; now emails from strange addresses clog up his account.

Most of the information is taken out of context or distorted beyond reality, Hill says. For instance, a lawmaker might vote on a particular piece of legislation more than a dozen times, but usually only one or two votes are a real benchmark as to where that lawmaker stands on the issue. Operatives will often use a procedural vote to distort a candidate's true position.

"You should never take any of this stuff at surface value," Hill says. "These people have taken sides."

Bryan, the former Louisiana press secretary for Clinton's 1996 bid, says campaigns often use the media to run up test balloons on how their opposition operates. By attacking candidates publicly, you can quickly gauge how thin-skinned they are and use that information against them.

"Really, it's just getting into your head and under your skin, because a lot of the time in politics it's hard and fast and quick hits," Bryan says. "If they know you react on the fly and wear your feelings on your sleeve, then they can catch you in something. It's kind of like a first punch in a boxing match. Will they flinch? Will they punch back? It lets you know where the other side is."

As far as credibility and honesty in the process, Bryan says many operatives stick to their own kind of truth. "First and foremost, you really need to try and make it as factual as you can. And then it's spin, like the old Mark Twain adage that you get the facts first then you distort it how you want."

Larry Lorenz, a professor of communications at Loyola University and host of Informed Sources, the WYES-TV reporters roundtable show, says media coverage of information originating from opposition research is more widespread than ever. But, he warns, that doesn't give the information credibility.

"There's just this notion today of herd journalism," Lorenz says. "Once it's picked up by one outlet, the thundering herd starts galloping with it. Š Something gets into the press and a feeding frenzy occurs. This is particularly true for cable news networks. They have Web sites and the newspapers have Web sites, so news breaks in an instant.

"The other side of that is a need for the candidate to respond almost immediately," Lorenz says. "If he doesn't respond almost immediately, it gets into peoples' minds as a negative story."

OPERATIVES DON'T necessarily need the media to spread their message. They can take it straight to the voters. In the 3rd Congressional District, Billy Tauzin III, a Thibodaux Republican hoping to replace his popular father by the same name, has made payments to Jamestown Associates, a conservative consulting firm in New Jersey that shares the same address as a nonprofit shell by the name of Citizens for a Better America. The Houston Chronicle reported earlier this year that the firm was using the nonprofit name to distribute flyers against their opposition in Texas races featuring unflattering pictures of candidates and nasty criticisms of their record.

Matt Gresham, a Tauzin spokesperson, says Jamestown has a very limited role in their campaign and no opposition research is being conducted. A Baton Rouge operative for the firm offered no comment. However, Marc Campos, president of Campos Communications in Houston, has faced Jamestown in the past and warns they should be watched carefully. "They like to draw up literature that attacks whoever they're running against," Campos says. "And they don't advocate that you vote against a candidate, but what they'll do is say a candidate ain't worth a shit or a candidate is a liberal or they have a shabby resume. It's character assassinations."

Richard Nelson, a professor at Louisiana State University's Manship School of Mass Communications, says this type of oppo work borders on modern political propaganda. "This is why some people are discouraged from running for office," Nelson says. "Negative campaigning seems to work with undecided voters in a tight race, so the gloves come off and these operatives get nasty. Š It's buyer beware."

Another candidate in the 3rd District, Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville, paid more than $14,000 to Texas-based Stanford Research over a four-month period. Stanford, a nationally recognized firm, has a Web site that boasts, "We serve Republicans. Would you like them skewered, roasted or deep-fried?"

While he acknowledges that Stanford is one of the best at what it does, Melancon contends he didn't use their services to spy on his opposition. Ellery Gould, a campaign spokesperson, says the only money the campaign has spent on oppo work was used to compile a "self-book." A critical tool in modern campaigning, a self-book is nothing more than an extensive investigation a campaign conducts into its own candidate's background. Gould says they "did it in order to build a positive message about Charlie's accomplishments," but self-books have many more uses. Roy Fletcher, a political consultant who has his hands in several races this election cycle, says a self-book is a must for any serious politician. "You've got to get an inventory," Fletcher says. "That's the first thing you do. Get an inventory of the information that's out there."

A self-book allows a campaign team to draft up rapid responses to serious questions if they should ever be asked. It also keeps top staffers from appearing shocked. "Some people might not even know that they have skeletons in their closet," Fletcher says.

LOCAL POLITICOS agree that opposition research has changed greatly over the past 20 years. Journalist John Maginnis, an author of three books on Louisiana politics, recalls the first time opposition research had a major role in a state election -- the 1983 gubernatorial election between former Govs. Dave Treen and Edwin Edwards. Treen formed the "Truth Squad," which did nothing more than follow Edwards around and point out inconsistencies in speeches to the traveling media. Led by researcher Scott Welch, who Maginnis dubbed "Captain Fact," the squad would draft memos and hold press conferences outlining Edwards' alleged misstatements.

"Back then it was a big deal. You would think, ŒWhat? Edwin lied! Stop the presses!'" Maginnis says, laughing. "That seems to be the first time I can remember such an effort being launched."

Maginnis agrees that the Internet has significantly changed oppo research. "You still have to go to the courthouse to get the goods, but there's now a lot of stuff online," Maginnis says. "One of the biggest changes is having campaign finance figures online, giving anyone access to see who is giving to whom." He recalls how an operative once spent countless days at the state Ethics Commission combing through finance records during the 1996 U.S. Senate race, until he found some questionable spending of campaign funds by former Attorney General Richard Ieyoub. Many believe the ensuing stories about those expenditures cost Ieyoub the election.

"Today, any eighth grader could go online and do the same thing in a matter of minutes," Maginnis says.

A quick scan of political forums on the Internet produces plenty of available information of dubious origin -- or of dubious importance. One candidate for federal office is named for frequenting the now-defunct Canal Street Brothel. Another well-known story being circulated involves a first-person article written by another Louisiana candidate when he was 17 recounting how he helped cast demons out of a friend during an exorcism. Neither story has been deemed both credible and newsworthy by most in the media.

Jim Nickel, a lead consultant with the firm Courson Nickel and former executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party, says the Internet has done more to make press secretaries nervous than any other change in modern campaigns. It's also a good reason to have self-books prepared before the announcement speech. "It puts us in a different news cycle," Nickel says. "You used to have to wait until the morning paper to see what your opposition said about you, but now you have to be ready in five minutes. You have to know how to defend yourself immediately and know where all the bones are buried."

Fletcher says the Internet has helped move operatives from the basement, where they plied their cloak-and-dagger tactics, to the head of the strategy table. "The ability to find information is extraordinary, and it's information that anybody can find with relative ease," he says. "Consequently, what has happened is the amount of information has increased and the speed has increased." For this reason, Fletcher says, political operatives have gone from being stuck in the field to being stuck in a room monitoring the Internet, television and radio.

Voters, likewise, have seen their roles evolve. Activist/attorney C.B. Forgotston posts the votes of state lawmakers on sensitive issues such as gambling and taxes on his Web site ( Forgotston says hits on his site peak when these reports are posted, suggesting voters are growing hungrier for this kind of information and losing patience to wait for it to be reported in the mainstream media.

"I felt there was nobody up there at the Capitol representing the average citizen," Forgotston says. "I was just getting sick in my stomach watching what these people were doing."

Forgotston says he has been warned his activities were angering lawmakers. To Forgotston, that's just proof that his work is paying off. "No politician, especially in the legislative branch, should be afraid of their voting record," he says. "I don't consider someone's voting record as dirty politics or negative in any way."

Just a few weeks ago, operatives from the state Republican Party used Forgotston's voting database to craft a hit piece against one of their own, opting to get it free from a Web site than paying a consultant a few grand to gather the information from the official journals of the House and Senate. When state Sen. Craig Romero, a Republican candidate in the 3rd Congressional District from New Iberia, slammed the state party for endorsing another GOP contender over him in the primary, party officials circulated a list of Romero's votes on gaming and taxes, citing Forgotston. This information is also readily available for free on the state Legislature's website.

In fact, one of the biggest hits this summer on a candidate in the U.S. Senate race came at the hands of a public report compiled by a nonprofit group. A recent survey conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics found U.S. Rep. Chris John was the third-leading House recipient of contributions from political action committees. For the ongoing election cycle, the nonpartisan watchdog group reports that PACs represent 40 percent of John's war chest. John has gone on record defending the contributions by stating they have never influenced his vote, but the news knocked him off message for a few days.

Dr. Kirby Goidel, director of the Public Policy Research Lab, a nonpartisan survey research institute in Baton Rouge, says it should come as no surprise that oppo research is moving into the hands of the average voter. "Today we have online citizen activists," he says. "Now people can sit at home and find the core aspects themselves. There's a certain voyeuristic aspect to some of this information that makes it fun to look up. It's a detective-like quality and people want it."

As for Koneschusky, he says he has given blood, sweat and tears to this Senate race and is dedicated to electing another Louisiana Democrat. And while Koneschusky has warmed considerably to Louisiana and its fun-loving ways, he's unsure where he will be after the Senate election is decided. Like so many others, he is a gun-for-hire -- so he goes where the work is. That means that somewhere in coming months, some unsuspecting Republican will turn to a staffer and say, "Who the hell is this guy?"

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