Rocky Mountain Hijinks: Colorado Republicans Tap Database for Political Purposes
We have been hearing from the Bush Administration about the need to create federal databases, and to intercept electronic communications without the use of warrants. First we were told that spying would help to keep us safe from terrorists. Now we have learned, via the New York Times, that prior to 9-11, Bush spied on Americans' communications with Latin America to prosecute its "War on Drugs." We are informed in the same article that Bush sought to build his capacity to gather information about entire neighborhoods without warrants.
The story below the break describes the local misuse, by Republican politicians, of a criminal database to further a political campaign. Coincidentally enough, the case involves communications with Latin America in the War on Drugs.
The case of Cory Voorhis, a fifteen year veteran Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer charged with illegally accessing the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, illustrates the manner in which centralized intelligence databases can be wrongly used for political purposes. Mr. Voorhis' case is interesting because it has become a cause celebré for the far right, and is being used to influence public perception of immigration policy and of immigrants.
In 2006, Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez was running for Governor of Colorado against Democratic candidate Bill Ritter, a former District Attorney who had left office in 2004. The Republican Governor, Bill Owens, was term limited, and had endorsed Beauprez as his successor. Beauprez, a favorite son of the Republican right wing, was a top recipient of funds through ARMPAC, Tom Delay’s discredited campaign funding organization. He had received $30,000.
In late September, Beauprez, who was running behind in the polls, began running attack ads against Ritter, accusing him of being soft on crime and immigration. The ads FBI investigate.
Initially, Beauprez claimed he was unaware of the NCIC database. After the Denver Post reported that Beauprez was one of 116 co-sponsors of the bill authorizing the creation of the database, Beauprez backtracked, stating that he had been approached with a tip by a source in law enforcement who was "fed up" with Ritter’s pattern of plea-bargains. The source was later identified by several papers as Austin-based ICE agent, Cory Voorhis.
Voorhis was charged with three misdemeanor counts of exceeding his authorized access to a government computer and faces a fine of up to $100,000 for each count. The investigation was jointly conducted by the FBI, the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and was placed under the control of John Green, the acting US Attorney in Wyoming, to avoid potential conflicts of interest with the Office of the District Attorney in Denver.
In November of 2006, after Voorhis had been charged, a Texas Private Investigator by the name of Kenny Rodgers came forward, saying that he had been hired by the Trailhead Group, a shadowy 527 formed by Owens to elect Republicans to office in Colorado, to gather information for an ad for the Beauprez campaign. Rodgers was paid $750 by the Trailhead Group. Rodgers is quoted in the Rocky Mountain News, saying, "my buddy who looked it up [in the NCIC] is in deep trouble because of me."
In August of 2006, Common Cause had called for an investigation of the Trailhead Group for possibly illegally financing a series of venomous anti-immigration robocalls, in the face of campaign finance restrictions, during a special session of the Colorado state legislature addressing immigration issues.
Colorado Confidential, investigated the finances of the Trailhead Group and uncovered a series of substantial unexplained and unreported donations back and forth between Republican organizations and Trailhead which did not properly add up, as well as a donation of $50,000 by Trailhead to the Colorado Leadership Fund, a non-existent organization. As of 2006, Trailhead was one of the richest 527 organizations in the US, having received hefty donations from the Republican Governor’s Association, the Republican Leadership Association, the Coors Family, and the Benson Minerals Group, all of which do, in fact, exist.
Tom Tancredo, a virulently anti-immigrant Republican Presidential candidate from Colorado, describes the chain of events leading to the charges against Voorhis in his presidential blog. Tancredo states that Voorhis, an “ICE superstar,” became disgusted after seeing an article in which Ritter blamed the failure to stem the tide of illegal immigration on ICE. Tancredo writes:
"As a senior ICE agent in Colorado, Voorhis was aware of a persistent pattern by Ritter’s office of allowing illegal aliens who were arrested for drug crimes, aggravated felonies, and other "serious crimes involving moral turpitude" to plead guilty to unrelated lesser charges such as "agricultural trespass", "possession of diazepam", and "possession of burglary tools".
He claims that "Voorhis took action" to disprove “Ritter’s claims of being tough on illegal immigrants,” and urges his supporters to donate to Voorhis’ defense fund.
Voorhis claims that he did not commit a crime because he passed the information to a Congressman, not to a political campaign. Members of Congress have limited access to the database.
World Net Daily, a right wing blog, claims that Voorhis was acting within the law when he accessed the NCIC database on behalf of then Congresman Beauprez’ political campaign.
Voorhis maintains he was fully within his rights under 5 U.S.C. Section 7211, to provide information to a U.S. congressman.
Title 5 U.S.C. Section 7211 reads, the right of employees, individually or collectively, to petition Congress or a Member of Congress, or to furnish information to either House of Congress, or to a committee or Member thereof, may not be interfered with or denied."
However, clicking the link to the unidentified code leads only to a request for donations on behalf of the Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute.
Voorhis' legal defense fund is financed by individuals linked to white supremacy and anti-immigration groups including Fred Elbel, President of Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform and Co-Chair of Defend Colorado Now. Elbel writes for the Social Contract Press, a website which does not allow access without a password but which reportedly publishes the views of the white nationalist movement. John Tanton, the publisher of Social Contract Press, has been linked to hate groups, and has donated $48,000 through his corporation, U.S. Inc., to Defend Colorado Now. He also a gave $1,319 to Tom Tancredo in 2004.
So far, the anti-immigration legislation championed by Beauprez, Fred Elbel and Defend Colorado Now has failed to take hold. Bob Beauprez lost his bid for the Governor’s mansion to Bill Ritter in a landslide. Tancredo is tanking in national polls. Anti-immigration initiatives have failed in Colorado as well.
However, the scions of social and genetic purity are not deterred. Beauprez dubbed Voorhis "a heroic whistleblower," stating: Voorhis: "Our source saw a terrible wrong that needed to be righted, and he blew the whistle." Clearchannel has broadcast "fact-free" harangues about Ritter’s "persecution" of Voorhis on Colorado talk radio. World Net Daily alleges that Ritter is endangering the prosecution of a Latino organized crime king pin in his efforts to exact political revenge on Voorhis, since misdemeanor charges could disqualify the ICE agent from testifying in an upcoming trial. World Net Daily quotes Voorhis’ legal defenders as saying, "When [Voorhis] made the phone call to Congressman Beauprez, he was not acting as a deep throat, he did not use an alias or a pseudonym, and he wasn't in the shadows. Voorhis felt he was performing a public service by disclosing this practice and he openly disclosed his identity to Beauprez."
Voorhis’ legal defense fund, in concert with his financial backers and in an apparent imitation of the defense strategy of Scooter Libby, are attacking the Denver district attorney and Bill Ritter. Voorhis’ defenders claim that the agent is being selectively prosecuted since the Office of the District Attorney in Denver also accessed the database in order to respond to inquiries about the ad. Michael G. Riebau, a spokesman for the Cory Voorhis Defense Fund, claims that the inquiries came from the Ritter campaign, whereas the Office of the D.A. maintains that it accessed the NCIC to confirm press inquiries into Estrada-Medina’s identity in the aftermath of the ads.
The right wing echo chamber has picked up the mantra. The Washington Times writes:
Supporters say the case raises the question: "What is the local, state and federal government doing to deport illegal aliens that have committed serious crimes," said Michael G. Riebau, a retired 35-year ICE special agent and spokesman for the Cory Voorhis Defense Fund. "And why are they charging a top agent for a crime he didn't commit?"
"There's really a two-tier system of justice that's operational in Denver, Colorado," said Mr. Riebau, who created the fund to help Mr. Voorhis raise money for his defense. "One for the alien and the other for everyone else. Mr. Voorhis never believed the information he gave the congressman's office for oversight would be used in a campaign — he was just doing his job as required by law. People can see right through this injustice."
Out of curiosity, the author of this article contacted an assistant district attorney in her hometown who is unfamiliar with the Voorhis case but who is very aware of restrictions surrounding the NCIC database. She was informed that it is illegal to access the database for any purposes unrelated to enforcement, and that any staff person doing so would be severely fined and fired. He stated that his office only uses the database to identify prior charges in current cases, and will not even use it for purposes of discovery. In order to access the database, his staff must first pass a rigorous exam for certification, thus proving their familiarity with database restrictions. However, he stated that it might be accessed in response to inquiries from the public about existing cases.
This case raises a number of troubling questions:
- If Voorhis is able to win his case in court by claiming that any federal employee can access a federal database for any reason whatsoever and pass information gained to a Congressman, has he established a dangerous new law through precedent?
- Is the hoopla on the right regarding this case a way to drum up public support for new presidential spying capabilities?
- Is it acceptable to misuse campaign finance funding to simultaneously incite racist sentiment and undermine our Constitutional Rights?
- This is merely one example of one FBI agent misusing a database. How many more examples might be lurking undetected?
- Is there a relationship between this case and the recent revelations that Bush was already spying, prior to 9/11, on American communications in Latin America?
We await the answers with bated breath.