The Orlando Sentinel has discovered that a "watch list" of Orlando residents handed out at a recent town hall meeting by Rep. Tim Griffin (R-AR) likely originated in the office of Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL). Griffin's office told the Sentinel that the watch list was given to them by another member of Congress. A source involved with the scandal confirmed that the Floridians targeted by the watch list had only attended Webster's town halls, making Webster the only member of Congress to have seen them and the only member of Congress who would've had reason to target them. Each of the listed activists is a resident of Webster's district.
The watch lists were distributed not only at the Griffin town hall, but reportedly in in Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina as well. The handouts included photos of six activists from the Orlando area and a list of questions to ask each of the residents. The questions were clearly designed to undermine the credibility of the activists, painting them as professional operatives out to disrupt conservative town hall meetings. In addition to dozens of spelling and grammatical errors, the handouts imply numerous factual inaccuracies about each of the people targeted. For instance, one of the questions for Organize Now Political Director Michael Cantone is "Were you rated one of the 'Best' Progressive Bloggers in the State of Florida by the Florida Progressive Coalition." Speaking as the primary writer for the Florida Progressive Coalition, I wrote the comment the flier is asking about and I (and FPC) have never "rated" Florida bloggers. The question implies that an offhand remark I made about Cantone's writing (which he never did much of, anyway) somehow is meant to say that he is a prominent Florida progressive blogger, which is not true.
Each page of the handout leads with the following:
Are Things Always As They Seem?
FOR THE MEDIA
Accepting comments offered at face value may not always be the best idea, without engaging just the most basic due diligence into who is doing the speaking. Learning more about what organizations a person represents, supports or is involved may serve to provide more clarity as to the motivation behind what is being said.
What also provides more clarity is factual accuracy and living up to the basic standard you set for others. The document does not reveal what organizations it "represents, supports or is involved" with or created by. And the author of the document certainly didn't engage in basic due diligence when it came to correctly reporting people's names or what jobs they have held in the past. None of the people in the handout, for instance, worked for "Barak Obama" in 2008, as the document implies. Or Barack Obama. And none of them is a paid MoveOn operative, either.
The activists in the flier responded:
“It seems clear that the presentation of these materials is intended to encourage harassment of these citizen activists and to intimidate other citizens from speaking out across America by attacking those who have already spoken out,” said Tamecka Pierce, President of Organize Now, who is also profiled in the document. “This behavior is unfitting for any member of Congress or their Congressional staff and represents a threat to the First Amendment rights of all citizens. This type of state sponsored intimidation, is a troubling, direct danger to our democratic process.”
“Citizens everywhere should be concerned as to whether or not tax payer dollars and resources were used to profile fellow Americans in an attempt to silence their voices and what role Congressional offices or campaigns played in disseminating state-sponsored intimidation of private citizens,” said Mike Cantone, Political Director for Organize Now, who was also profiled.
“These fear tactics are reminiscent of the incendiary “Wanted” posters for Planned Parenthood doctors and activists and Sarah Palin’s crosshairs on Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ district -- threats and intimidation tactics that led to real violence and even murder,” said another local activist, who was also profiled in the handout, but is fearful of being quoted directly because of further possible retribution while looking for employment. “The Constitution welcomes and protects open, honest and impassioned speech by the citizenry, no matter the party affiliation, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, it seems that Rep. Webster does not tolerate dissent and has placed constituents who often disagree on some kind of ‘watch list,’ which has been distributed to the public by at least one other Congressional office.”
“This action sends a clear message to constituents: If you disagree, keep quiet or face retribution,” says Pierce. “I’m scared to know that if I speak at a public meeting, that the Federal Government will use their vast tax-payer funded resources to spread lies and fear across the country. Big government should not be used to intimidate its citizens.”
Much of the handout fails even a basic logic test. Justin Rubin, MoveOn's executive director said: "It is ridiculous that Republicans think that every constituent that stands up and challenges them at a town hall is a MoveOn member. The fact of the matter is their policies are deeply unpopular with the vast majority of Americans - not just MoveOn members. If Republicans don't want to take questions from their constituents it is probably time for them to find a new line of work."
Intimidation at Griffin's town hall went even further. As Huffington Post reports:
One local activist in Griffin's district, who did not want to be named for fear he would "end up in the next handout," said Griffin's District Chief of Staff, Carl Vogelpohl, along with two other staffers, were manning the sign-in table where the "watch list" was being distributed, and staffers were instructing attendees that it was their "homework."
One attendee contended that the combination of seeing the handouts and then observing staffers videotaping and photographing the audience created an atmosphere of intimidation at Griffin's town hall.