—quote from an anonymous letter received by Bronx Board of Elections Deputy Chief Dawn Sandow
The subpoena saga between the office of Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson and political blog Room Eight has less to do with the crushing of online dissent than the intersection of real and web-based threats, the chief of the The Bronx GOP said today.
Bronx Republican Party Chairman Joseph “Jay” Savino allowed the Village Voice the opportunity to view a series of threatening, poorly written letters received by Bronx Board of Elections Deputy Chief Dawn Sandow since March 2007. The letters contain, among other things, a series of death threats against Sandow and her children and specifically mention that the sender had also been harassing Sandow on various political blogs. At least two of the letters indicate they were sent by supporters of Guy Velella, the former Bronx state senator and Republican Party chairman who resigned from office following a guilty plea on influence peddling charges in 2004.
“we will not stop b;logging you and harassing you until you leave that buildoing or resign” goes the most inflammatory letter. “you love your children dont you you ewoulfd do anything for your children do it before you are in Ruggieros funeral viewin your kids bodies. you decide Dawn.”
The letters were referred to the police and became part of a criminal investigation by Johnson’s office, said Savino. Since blogging was mentioned in the letter, Savino also pointed investigators to blog posts critical of himself and Sandow on Room Eight and the now defunct Urban Elephants. Savino added that as a result of this Johnson’s office subpoenaed Room Eight seeking the IP address of a blogger using the handle “Republican Dissident,” who had been responsible for the bulk of the sites criticism of Savino and Sandow. Neither the subpoena nor the DA’s office made it clear to the blogs that the probe involved death threats.
Johnson’s office, which has come under fire for potentially using the power of his office to silence critics through the subpoenas, released a statement further explaining the office’s actions. It did explain why his office never revealed the reason it was seeking IP addresses and other data about commenters on the site.
“The subpoenas had nothing to do with any critics of this office or of any elected official,” reads the statement. “The action was taken as part of a legitimate effort to look into allegations of criminal conduct. Some staff members believed that the subpoenas would prove to be of probative value regarding a specific issue. The District Attorney reviewed the matter, determined that there was not significant enough value in issuing the subpoenas at this time, and directed that they be withdrawn.”
Room Eight founders Ben Smith, now a reporter for Politico, and Gur Tsabar have stated that, having never been informed of the reasons behind the investigation, they feared the worst and assumed it was politically motivated.
When asked for comment about the Savino documents, Smith said his Op-Ed in the Daily News today speaks for itself:
If Johnson won’t answer those questions, we hope some independent investigator will. And we hope the district attorney – and other prosecutors – will think through policies to extend to bloggers, even anonymous ones, some of the same free speech protections that traditional journalists have long been accorded.
A spokesperson for the New York Press Association declined to comment about the Johnson subpoena, citing unfamiliarity with the specifics of the case.
Sandow could not be reached for comment, though the subject matter of the letters is so mean-spirited she might not want to talk about it anyway. The charges shift from letter to letter, describing Sandow as a racist, a pervert, or a criminal in between threats on her own life and the lives of her children. Some of the letters claim to come from a group of “moles” working within the Bronx Board of Elections and contain specific information about Sandow’s schedule, as well as claims of specific information about her children.
They also urge Sandow to resign her elections post, or risk unspeakable things happening to her or her children: “your days wuith kids are numbered. we have school addres and ss#s and there pretty faces,” states the letter. “Supporters of Guy Velella we will not be defeated.”
The same letter also contains the lines “dead kids tell no tale” and “die lkittle kids of dawn sanbitchdow die.”
Savino, a former Velella staffer himself, waged an unsuccessful campaign against Democratic State Senator Jeff Klein in 2006 for Velella’s former seat. During that race Savino’s campaign headquarters was deluged with anonymous threatening phone calls. Savino noted that one elderly campaign worker was told to “shove the phone up her cunt,” while another caller made it clear to a different female campaign worker that he knew she was alone in the office one evening. Later calls to Sandow, and the aforementioned letters, were made following that campaign. Savino added that though the letters stopped in September 2007, threatening phone calls have continued to Republican headquarters and to the cell phones of various Savino allies, all of which have been reported to police.
Savino said that he was mystified as to why Velella’s name appears on the letters. “I don’t know what to think about it,” said Savino. “You’d have to ask him.” A message left for Velella has not yet been returned. Savino was grateful that Johnson’s office took the matter seriously, and was hopeful that the perpetrator would eventually be punished, for his or her actions.
“It’s upsetting, to say the least,” said Savino. “But I don’t believe this has anything to do with freedom of speech. It has more to do with protecting innocent children who have been threatened on paper.”
Paul Alan Levy, the attorney for Public Citizen who represented Room Eight in the subpoena fight, said that had he and his clients been informed of the scope of Johnson’s investigation and the content of Savino’s letters, it might have changed their actions. However, he argued that Johnson’s actions could represent a slippery slope leading to the outings of whistleblowers and other serious critics of government.
“I’m sure it would have given me greater pause,” said Levy. “But at this point all we have is the unsworn say-so by a Republican leader.”
To prevent hurtling down that slippery slope, Levy said that such investigations must be pinpoint specific, and cannot cast a wide net across a variety of anonymous bloggers and commenters.
“Why out one person just because another person is misbehaving?” asked Levy.