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Published: Wednesday, 10/13/2004

Thieves hit Democratic Party offices; computers containing sensitive data removed

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Thieves shattered a side window overnight at Lucas County Democratic headquarters in Toledo, stealing computers with sensitive campaign information and triggering concern of the local party's ability to deliver crucial votes on Nov. 2.

Among the data on the stolen computer of the party's office manager were: e-mails discussing campaign strategy, candidates' schedules, financial information, and phone numbers of party members, candidates, donors, and volunteers.

Also taken were computers belonging to Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak and to a Texas attorney working with the Kerry/Edwards presidential campaign to ensure election security.

The thefts have prompted the Kerry/Edwards campaign and Democrats in Washington to offer help and have left local officials fretting about the crime's impact on the upcoming election, in which Ohio plays a high-profile role.

"This puts us behind the eight ball," party spokesman Jerry Chabler said. "This can affect our entire get-out-the-vote operation."

Ohio's Democratic Party pledged to deploy volunteers, lend computers, or "provide whatever source of assistance they need," said spokesman Dan Trevas.

The political importance of Lucas County cannot be overstated, Mr. Trevas said.

"It's a major Democratic county in a swing area, surrounded by Republican and moderates," Mr. Trevas said. "A lot of votes come out of northwest Ohio."

Both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry have campaigned throughout the region repeatedly. With a saturation of television ads by both parties in the local market, it has become one of the most contested regions in the country.

Barbara Koonce, the office manager, said information on her computer had not been backed up since August. "I try to do it at least once a month, but we've been so extremely busy here, it's not the first thing on our minds," she said.

Beyond the missing data, the break-in also might have lasting "collateral damage" because 25 to 50 volunteers come to the headquarters to make phone calls, send out campaign information, and "do the necessary grunt work," in any campaign, Mr. Chabler said.

Toledo police took fingerprints at the scene with the hopes, in part, that they may be identified or matched to unidentified prints at other crime scenes.

Neither Chief Mike Navarre nor other investigators would elaborate on the details of the case, although lead investigator Jim Dec confirmed, "We collected valuable physical evidence."

At Democratic headquarters, officials stopped short of publicly blaming partisan politics, but at the same time, they all but ruled out run-of-the-mill criminals.

Two other computers, holding less sensitive information, were untouched, as were a petty cash box that usually holds $80 to $100, televisions, portable radios, and other electronics. Moreover, other offices inside the building, 1817 Madison Ave., were not entered. Files, papers, and pamphlets remained in neat piles, and campaign signs leaned, apparently undisturbed, against a wall.

"They knew what they wanted," Mr. Chabler said, calling the incident a 'third-rate burglary,' " a not-so-subtle reference to the break-in at National Democratic Committee offices in 1972 that began the Watergate scandal that eventually led to the President Nixon's resignation.

Meanwhile, activities at Democratic headquarters, usually in a frenzy just three weeks before the election, were temporarily stalled yesterday. Volunteers had left the building about 11 p.m. Monday, believing they had set the alarm, officials said.

But another worker may have unintentionally interrupted a beam from a motion sensor, preventing the alarm's activation, Mr. Chabler said. The crime was discovered about 7 a.m.

Guardian Alarm manager Kris Zielinski said she could not discuss a customer's account, but she confirmed that such a situation could occur. Still, the alarm's user would be alerted to the trouble by a light or some other indicator, she said.

With the election three weeks away, other headquarters around the country have been the targets of suspected political shenanigans, although there was no immediate link made between those cases and the Toledo break-in.

"It's wrong," said Chris Vance, chairman of the Republican Party in Washington State, where intruders have stolen or attempted to steal computers from at least two campaign offices recently. "It's not how Americans conduct their elections."

The sentiment was echoed by local Republican chairman Bernadette Noe, who noted that two Republican billboards were defaced by vandals overnight. "It'd be so disillusioning to think our [political] process could stoop to such lows," she said.

Sandy Isenberg hugged workers as she walked into the building about 9 a.m. She said that workers had to rebuild the databases in May after Ms. Isenberg took over the party chairmanship from Paula Ross. The move followed a bitter public dispute that had divided much of the party.

"When we took over the leadership of the party, we had to reconstruct everything," Ms. Isenberg said. "We'll do it again."

The party is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. If the information is provided before the election, the reward is $5,000.

Contact Robin Erb at:

robinerb@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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