When Sen. Jim Bunning complained on the Senate floor in February that he'd missed the Kentucky-South Carolina basketball game because of a debate on unemployment benefits -- a debate the Kentucky Republican himself prevented from proceeding to a vote -- Bruce Shore got angry.
"I was livid. I was just livid," said Shore, 51, who watched the floor proceedings on C-SPAN from his home in Philadelphia. "I'm on unemployment, so it affects me. I'm in shock."
Instead of just being angry, Shore took action: He sent several emails to Bunning staffers, blasting the senator for blocking the benefits.
"ARE you'all insane," said part of one letter Shore sent on Feb. 26 (which he shared with HuffPost). "NO checks equal no food for me. DO YOU GET IT??"
In that letter he signed off as "Brad Shore" from Louisville. He said he did the same thing in several other messages sent via the contact form on Bunning's website. "My assumption was that if he gets an email from Philadelphia, who cares?" he said. "Why would he even care if a guy from Philadelphia gets upset?"
Bunning might not have cared, but the FBI did. Sometime in March, said Shore, agents came calling to ask about the emails. They read from printouts of the messages sent via the contact form and asked if Shore was the author, which he readily admitted. They asked a few questions, and then, according to Shore, they said, "All right, we just wanted to make sure it wasn't anything to worry about."
But on May 13, U.S. Marshals showed up at Shore's house with a grand jury indictment. Now he's got to appear in federal court in Covington, Ky. on May 28 to answer for felony email harassment. Specifically, the indictment (PDF) says that on Feb. 26, Shore "did utilize a telecommunications device, that is a computer, whether or not communication ensued, without disclosing his identity and with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, and harass any person who received the communication."
The language of Shore's indictment is taken directly from the statute -- there's no description of the actual crime. The Kentucky U.S. Attorney's Office said it's a typical indictment but that the Department of Justice prohibited further comment beyond what's in the charging document. The crime carries a penalty of up to two years in prison and a $250,000 maximum fine.
Shore swears he didn't intend to make a threat. He's not sure what he said that crossed the line; he said he doesn't have copies of the messages sent via Bunning's site. He said he thought sending angry letters to Congress was a First Amendment thing. "If I send 50 letters to Congress, is that illegal or is it just me wasting paper?"
Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil liberties lawyer and the author of "Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent," has long argued that vague laws allow the federal government to prosecute citizens for things most people wouldn't consider crimes. (The message of his book's title is that the average person unintentionally commits three felonies a day. "Half of the anonymous Internet comments would" be illegal according to the statute used against Shore, said Silverglate.)
"If nothing else the U.S. Attorney has managed to harass a defendant. Now we have to find out if the defendant managed to harass anybody," said Silverglate, who looked at Shore's indictment. "When finally the government is forced by a judge's order to specify what the criminal harassment consisted of, if in fact the words used are quite innocuous and don't by any standard rise to the level of a real threat, it's going to be an example of exactly what my complaint is about."
Bunning's office is not involved in the prosecution. A staffer said the office received lots of email over the unemployment issue and turned some over to the Capitol Police -- a common thing for a congressional office to do. It's up to the Capitol Police whether to involve federal or local law enforcement, and up to those agencies to pursue a case.
Shore said he's been unemployed for the past two years since losing his job as an office manager. He recently received his final unemployment check, joining the ranks of 35,200 Pennsylvanians and hundreds of thousands of Americans who've exhausted all their benefits. He said he used a credit card to book a hotel room in Covington for Friday.
He's particularly alarmed because he's already got a criminal record: In 1995, he and his girlfriend pleaded guilty to 35 burglaries in Bucks County, Pa. The Philadelphia Daily News dubbed them "Bonnie & Clyde": "Their last embrace came in their Northeast Philadelphia apartment. Cops with a warrant did some breaking in of their own and caught the couple, well, coupling -- surrounded by half the booty they'd burgled."
Shore said he got out of prison in 1999 and his lived since then with his mother, who is 81. He's afraid his email indiscretion will wipe out his progress, which includes community college and classes at Temple University, where in 2004 he was on a team that won a $2,000 prize in an IT excellence competition.
"I'm walking around in my head: jail for email, jail for email," he said. "At this point I'm just looking at my government and going, anything is possible. When do the adults wake up and say, 'This gentleman is just angry and frustrated?' I'm just speechless. Shocked. I probably dropped 10 pounds in a week. To think you turn your life around, you don't do anything wrong after you make a mistake when you were younger..."
UPDATE: Shore pleaded "not guilty" to the charge on May 28.