Money Ties But Some Holes In Possible Clinton-Robocall Connection

05/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

On Wednesday, word broke that the D.C. nonprofit group, Women's Voices Women Vote had initiated automated 'robocalls' in North Carolina that spread misleading information about voter registration and registration deadlines.

Within hours, the group had apologized for the calls, which, "caused widespread confusion and [drew] hundreds of complaints, including many from African-American voters who received the calls," according to Facing South, the site the broke the story.

But because Women's Voices had been involved in similar complaints in other states (Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Wisconsin, and others), and because the target of the robocalls in North Carolina were constituencies likely to vote for Sen. Barack Obama, conspiracy theories spread quickly that Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign was behind the deed.

Clinton staff denied any connection to the calls, which targeted African American voters using an African American mans voice. And Sarah Johnson, a spokeswoman for Women's Voices, said there was absolutely no coordination or collusion with the senator's office: "We do not endorse any political candidates or parties."

Evidence suggesting a connection between the organization and the candidate is tangential, and comes with some key caveats. But it is enough to raise eyebrows.

Maggie Williams, Clinton's campaign manager, served on the Women's Voices leadership team up until last year. Moreover, her firm, Griffin Williams Critical Point Management, earned more than $88,000 from Women's Voices in 2006 for activities deemed "strategic planning," according to the group's IRS filing.

Pat Griffin, who has ties to the Clintons and is a partner of Williams, similarly served on the leadership team of the organization before leaving last year.

Also, a Women's Voices board member, Hal Malchow, has done direct mail and/or telephone surveys both for the organization and for Clinton's campaign. According to the group's IRS form, Malchow's company MSHC was paid more than $2.7 million in 2006; MSHC conducts "telephone surveying" for Women's Voices, according to its website.

In addition, according to campaign finance filings, MSHC is owed more than $800,000 by the Clinton campaign, likely for direct mail.

Asked whether MSHC was involved in the Women's Voices robocall, an official with the firm said she was unable to comment. Officials with Women's Voices, on Thursday, said the firm had not
been involved in the robocolls.

But for all these connections -- and other Women's Voices officials have connections to the Clintons, including board member John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff -- there are notable holes to the collusion theory.

As Ben Smith noted, also serving on the board is William McNary, "the president of the progressive coalition USAction and a leader of Illinois Citizen Action who has been, reportedly, a vigorous Obama supporter since his 2004 Senate race." Mike Lux, a frequent critic of Clinton, also serves on the board.

And while the North Carolina attorney general on late Wednesday evening said the robocalls "violated the law" by failing to disclose who sponsored the activity and failing to offer the organization's contact information, the broader goal of the Women's Voices has been, it seems, legitimate voter registration efforts.

Indeed, according to Johnson, the group has operated in 24 states and has sent out more than 3 million pieces of voter registration information. In North Carolina, 80 percent of those forms have been recalled.

"We are completely apologetic about this," she said. "Our goal remains to bring more unmarried women into our democracy, because they register and vote considerably less than married women."

The Obama campaign, in a conference call on Wednesday, seemed to take the organization's apology at its word. "[They] have apologized and indicated that it was inadvertent," said Bob Bauer, the campaign's counsel.

UPDATE: Here's a statement sent over from John Podesta, Board Member of Women's Voices, Women Vote:

Women's Voices. Women Vote has a strong record of registering disenfranchised people so that they can participate in the political process. As a board member, I was aware of the general parameters of the group's voter registration program, but not the details of its execution. With respect to the calls and mailings made in North Carolina, I understand that remedial action is being undertaken. I agree with fellow board member William McNary that the North Carolina state calling program was a mistake of judgment and execution, and not an attempt to disenfranchise voters, and have been assured by Page Gardner, President of WVWV, that the organization will conduct a full and prompt accounting of the circumstances of the voter registration program for its board of directors.