At 3:31 PM Friday, December 19, Michael L. Connell, a top Internet consultant for the Republican National Committee and for the Bush and McCain presidential campaigns, left Washington from the small airport in College Park, Md. Alone at the helm of a single engine Piper Saratoga, Connell's flight plan anticipated arrival at his hometown Akron-Canton Airport in a little over two hours, at 5:43 PM.
Instead, about three miles short of the Akron-Canton Airport, Connell's plane crashed to the ground in an upscale section of Lake Township, killing Connell instantly. "I was standing in the kitchen and I looked out the window and all I saw was fire," Taylor Fano told The Akron Beacon Journal. "It took out the flagpole and the cement blocks surrounding the flagpole . . . . It skidded across the driveway and right in-between a line of pine trees and a small fence around an in-ground pool."
The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the accident and has not yet filed a report, but there was no immediate evidence of wrong-doing or sabotage.
Many in the blogosphere have called for further investigation of the crash, suggesting that Connell was about to provide crucial information in the case of alleged vote fraud in the 2004 Ohio presidential contest, and that that information would implicate Karl Rove and others in the Bush administration. [see update below]
Just last month, Connell was deposed in the ongoing case, King Lincoln Bronzeville Neighborhood Association v. Blackwell. According to accounts of the November 3rd deposition, Connell denied any knowledge of attempts to fraudulently manipulate 2004 Ohio vote counts.
There is, however, a more immediate and relevant question: How much will Connell's death, even if the accident was entirely without malfeasance, impede congressional committee investigations into the more controversial activities of the Bush administration over the past eight years - including the ongoing investigation into thousands of missing White House-RNC emails sent and received by some 22 White House political aides, including Rove. These emails are believed likely to shed light on the political firings of U.S. Attorneys, and to show if the White House had any role in controversial decisions to prosecute former Alabama Democratic Governor Don Siegelman.
After first emerging as a web consultant during the 1998 gubernatorial campaign of Jeb Bush, Connell quickly became a key member of the Republican brain trust and quickly became part of a small network of political consultants and lobbyists favored by Rove. He advised both Bush-Cheney campaigns, and was a regular consultant to the RNC and other GOP committees.
Connell, and his firms - New Media Communications, Govtech and Connell Donatelli Inc. - were part of a universe that included such other GOP operatives as Tony Feather and Jeff Larson of FLS Connect, Tom Synhorst of the DCI Group, and Jeff Averbeck of Smartech. Their companies have received millions of dollars from the Bush-Cheney campaign committees of 2000 and 2004 from the three major - national, congressional and senatorial - Republican Party committees; from such conservative interest groups as the National Rifle Association and Citizens Against Government Waste; from a host of corporations and trade associations seeking to remain in the administration's good graces; and from dozens and dozens of Republican House and Senate campaigns.
Two of Connell's firms received at least $8.78 million from the RNC from 2004 to 2008 and from the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign. FLS got $39.5 million between 2004 and 2008 from the RNC alone, and Smartech got $9.74 million from the RNC over the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
These revenue reports only touch the surface. Before his death, Connell's New Media listed 90 clients on its web site from the Alabama Republican Party to the Business Roundtable to the Free Enterprise Fund, to the Republican Jewish Coalition to USAID. The scope of Connell's client list is a reflection of the Midas touch of the Bush administration in signaling to prospective clients which firms were in good stead.
As it stands now, whatever Connell knew about the activities of Karl Rove and other Republican operatives will go with him to his grave at St. Hilary Catholic Church in Fairlawn, Ohio. His family released a statement on the New Media web site declaring, "Mike was a devoted husband and father, who, with his wife of 18 years, raised a family of four wonderful children. Mike was also a committed man of faith, who regularly worshipped with his family at St. Hillary's and who lived his faith through mission work to help the poor and less fortunate at home and around the world. Finally, Mike was an engaged citizen, who was actively involved at all levels of our political system."
In a telephone interview, Connell's wife Heather adamantly declared "he was a good man. He did nothing wrong. He wasn't about to talk, because there was nothing to talk about. Nobody did anything wrong. We won the elction fair and square. Deal with it." Asked if he ever spoke about the disputed emails, Heather Connell said "I have no clue about that. I just know it's not him."
A close friend who worked extensively with Connell in Republican politics said, however, that he believes Connell "was more involved in that than a lot of people were let to believe." This associate of Connell's, who first brought the accident to the attention of the Huffington Post, said Connell, who was deeply religious and firmly pro-life, may have been "developing second thoughts" after years of being convinced that "working for the Republican cause was doing God's work."
An earlier version of this story claimed: "Connell's death provoked a groundswell of commentary among conspiracy theorists on the web, including Larisa Alexandrovna, Raw Story, Velvet Revolution, ePluribus Media, and TheZoo."
To be fair: Larisa Alexandrovna acknowledged that suspicions that Connell's death was the result of sabotage were unproven, and she urged that empirical evidence be pursued. Her articles and those that she cites legitimately raised questions that in many cases are worthy of pursuit (See Alexandrovna's letter concerning this story here.) I regret using "conspiracy theorists" to describe Larisa Alexandrovna, Raw Story, and the others.