Irina Goldstein says she didn’t immediately recognize the man who sent her a Facebook friend request in October, after she had commented on a group photo that included him.
That man was Valentino DiGiorgio III, the South Philadelphia-born chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party.
“I’m running for City Council,” she messaged him when she realized who he was. “Next time you’re in Philly, I’d be honored to buy you coffee.”
That began a barrage of messages over two days, Goldstein said, that swung from her seeking his advice and support to flirtation and then sexually charged exchanges that included DiGiorgio’s sending her a photo of an erect penis.
In her messages to him, Goldstein at times either referenced or explicitly cited sex acts. After the photo, she continued to correspond with DiGiorgio for more than four months, seeking help with her candidacy.
Still, she said, she grew embarrassed and unsettled by the exchanges, reviewed by The Inquirer, because DiGiorgio had “the upper hand” in their dynamic. They finally stopped communicating in February, after a written exchange in which she told him his messages amounted to his “sexually harassing” her.
In a reply to her, DiGiorgio denied any wrongdoing during their online interaction, and said he had been a “perfect gentleman” in their only face-to-face meeting, at a Philadelphia restaurant. They never had physical contact.
DiGiorgio has not disputed trading messages with Goldstein but declined to discuss them. He agreed to an interview with The Inquirer but then canceled. Joel Frank, general counsel for the state Republican Party and a lawyer for DiGiorgio, in a letter last week described the messages as “mutual private exchanges between adults” and called Goldstein’s claims “a mischaracterization, incomplete and defamatory.”
Frank also claimed Goldstein had withheld from The Inquirer some of their communications, specifically a naked picture of herself he said she sent to DiGiorgio. Frank said he did not have a copy of that picture or other messages he suggested she may have sent.
On Tuesday, less than two hours after The Inquirer first reported Goldstein’s claims, DiGiorgio stepped down from his position. In his resignation letter, he said that the report included “gross mischaracterizations” of their communications and that he planned to “rigorously defend myself against these assertions.”
In interviews with The Inquirer, Goldstein denied sending him any naked pictures of herself or withholding messages. She said she waited until after the primary to speak publicly about their interactions because she feared the influence DiGiorgio could have on her campaign.
Goldstein, 35, also said Michael Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor now representing DiGiorgio as a private attorney, called her last week and proposed that she sign a nondisclosure agreement that would bar her from disparaging DiGiorgio, 51, who is married with children. Schwartz, she said, offered to have DiGiorgio also sign the agreement and told her that keeping their interactions confidential was in her best interest.
“He said my reputation would be ruined,” Goldstein told The Inquirer. “Like [DiGiorgio] was going to do me a favor by not talking about me.”
Schwartz did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He and the firm where he works, Pepper Hamilton, have represented The Inquirer in legal matters.
In reporting this story, The Inquirer reviewed more than 150 pages of messages, provided by Goldstein, that she says she and DiGiorgio exchanged between October and February. Goldstein also showed a reporter the original messages on her cell phone.
At one point in their exchange, DiGiorgio described to her his practice of deleting messages and using social media platforms that leave little electronic trail.
All of this occurred during a time of intense focus on how powerful men treat women, when several political leaders, including in Pennsylvania, saw their political careers ended or damaged over their roles in such matters.
Last year, Marcel Groen was forced out as chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party amid criticism that he was slow to condemn sexual harassment allegations involving state Democrats. And U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, a Delaware County Republican, dropped his bid for reelection and then resigned after the settlement of a staffer’s sexual harassment complaint was made public.
As the head of the state GOP, Val DiGiorgio was not an elected official but held considerable sway in the state’s politics, as President Donald Trump sees the state as key to his reelection next year.
“We know the road to 2020 runs through Pennsylvania and the PA GOP remains firmly committed to keeping Pennsylvania red for President Trump and Vice President Pence,” DiGiorgio wrote June 16 in his Chairman’s Update newsletter.
The Friend request
Goldstein, born in Soviet-era Ukraine, came to Philadelphia in 1989. The owner of a financial and insurance firm, she was new to the GOP and a political novice last year, having changed her voter registration from Democrat to run for an at-large seat on City Council.
She said she didn’t know who DiGiorgio was when he sent her a Facebook friend request and then reached out on the social media site’s Messenger application in October, so she looked him up and discovered his position in the party.
A resident of West Whiteland Township, DiGiorgio became the head of the Chester County GOP in 2011 and two years ago became chairman of the state party. He also works as an attorney at the Center City firm Stradley Ronon.
Goldstein also said she realized she had previously met members of his family who were also active in Philadelphia Republican politics — Joe McColgan, DiGiorgio’s brother-in-law and onetime candidate for City Council and local party chairman, as well as McColgan’s mother, who is a member of the state party’s board. “I tied it all together,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein said she was eager for help as she tried to establish herself in the party. She said she hoped to pitch herself as an asset, able to build bridges with Russian-speaking immigrants in Northeast Philadelphia.
The ‘double-edged sword’
Within those first 48 hours, the pair shared a flurry of Facebook messages. In one, DiGiorgio sent Goldstein a photo of herself from her Instagram account.
“Well you also happen to be nice to look at,” he wrote.
He also turned down her offer to connect through another social media site, LinkedIn. “Your too beautiful for me to follow everywhere,” he wrote.
DiGiorgio wrote to Goldstein that her beauty could be a “double-edged sword” that prevented people from taking her seriously.
She replied: “It keeps them engaged when they realize there’s levels to it.” Soon after, she added: “You’d be surprised how many young people are ready and desperate for someone on the right that looks and thinks like me. So while it’s a thin and daring line to walk, I’m all too happy to do it.”
DiGiorgio kept commenting on her looks, at one point asking for photos of her lips. Her language also grew sexually charged. They made plans to meet for dinner.
He warned, “Don’t pout or look me too long in the eyes and you’ll be safe.”
“Is this what you do? Make women blush and charm them into liking you … charm the pants off of them?” Goldstein asked in one message.
DiGiorgio replied: “Think I can charm them off?”
“I can’t blame you for trying,” she wrote back. “But I have a pretty high moral ground I follow.”
“Good to know,” DiGiorgio responded.
“Hahaha,” came the reply. “There goes my free dinner.”
“We can still dinner,” he wrote. “Just don’t pout at the table."
“Only under,” she wrote back.
“Deal … Then we need a more private room,” DiGiorgio wrote.
At another point Goldstein wrote: “You’re definitely one of the hottest 50-year-olds I know but you have a family and I have a boyfriend I love.”
“Good for him. And you,” DiGiorgio replied.
“And your wife and kids,” she wrote.
“Right,” he replied.
Then Goldstein wrote: “Maybe not so much for your needs.”
‘Duty to the party’
During that stretch in October, DiGiorgio sent her photos of him speaking that month at a Union County Republican Party meeting, then asked: “Where’s my pics? Making me beg? It’s your duty to the party.”
She sent back a photo of her right index finger pulling at the right corner of her lower lip.
DiGiorgio, she said, told her that Facebook Messenger wasn’t secure enough for their most intimate interactions. He suggested they share photos via Snapchat.
“Snapchat deletes. Text is forever,” he messaged her.
She said she didn’t trust Snapchat. “If I wanted to do anything with it, I could screenshot it,” she wrote.
The conversation turned explicit; at one point she suggested how DiGiorgio might lightly choke her during intercourse. And she asked him to send her photographs.
“I want a picture I can use,” she messaged DiGiorgio. “I’ve added you [on Snapchat] and I’m excited to see what you have for me.”
That’s when the picture of the erect penis arrived, via Facebook Messenger, according to their conversation. She took a screenshot of the image.
Asked by The Inquirer this month, Goldstein said she saved the photo because “I didn’t really feel safe with this man.” She also said their interactions left her feeling as if she was “in a weird predicament” but she decided “I would just play along with it.”
DiGiorgio also showed caution after the fact, telling her in one message: “I delete everything.” He added: “Just talking to you could get me in trouble.”
They made plans to meet Oct. 15, a week after they first communicated, the messages show. He then asked to postpone the dinner. She ultimately canceled it.
“While the conversations have been entertaining and you’re tempting and I’m flattered by your approaching me and attention, I prefer to do the fair and right thing,” she wrote, ending the message with an emoji winking and blowing a kiss.
“I got it,” DiGiorgio replied. “Was having the same thought.”
She responded: “That’s good. I was getting scared nobody had a moral compass these days anymore, glad yours is still intact. I’d still appreciate your help if that’s something you’re willing to do now that sex is off the table.” She attached a laughing emoji.
“And obviously,” she added a few minutes later, “you have nothing to worry about as far as these exchanges go and I hope this stays between us as well from your end.”
DiGiorgio wrote back: “Of course.”
‘Something wrong with me’
Still Goldstein said she was embarrassed by the exchanges, and told an adviser about them in November. “I felt like there was something wrong with me,” she said.
Contacted this month by The Inquirer, Goldstein’s adviser would neither confirm nor deny knowing about the messages.
In his letter last week, Frank, the lawyer for DiGiorgio and the party, wrote that there is “a witness who can corroborate [DiGiorgio’s] claims about the mutuality of the subject conversations and the lack of harassment.” When contacted later, Frank declined to identify that witness.
As rumors of their interactions began to circulate, Goldstein and DiGiorgio agreed to meet at a Kensington restaurant on Dec. 3. Goldstein said she asked DiGiorgio “to forget it ever happened.” He offered — again — to serve as a political mentor for her, she said, and their parting was amicable.
In the ensuing weeks, Goldstein repeatedly sought DiGiorgio’s assistance for her campaign, asking for an introduction to a prominent Republican donor and fund-raiser, for help gathering signatures on nomination petitions to get on the ballot, for him to push Michael Meehan, chairman of the Republican City Committee in Philadelphia, to endorse her.
Months after their first interactions, they continued to message. And at times, she showed how much of a political neophyte she was. On Jan. 3, DiGiorgio messaged Goldstein a photo of himself with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in the Florida Republican’s Washington office.
“Who’s that?” Goldstein asked.
As her City Council campaign ramped up, the whispers about them had not subsided. DiGiorgio messaged her on Feb. 18, saying that he was getting “calls regularly now” about her and had “more than enough going on dealing with statewide issues and the White House, believe me.”
“Anyway, people increasingly are telling me that you, or a friend of yours, have been talking about communications between you and me. So that’s a problem too,” he messaged her on Facebook. “And the problem is, some of these people talking about this are not my friends.”
“Lol,” she replied. “Val I can’t speak for anyone or anything. I will deny it all. Not sure what else you want. I’m not your problem so focus on what you need. If I wanted to say or do anything I wouldn’t wait 5 months.”
He wrote: “I know.”
They continued to trade messages. She wrote DiGiorgio about a fund-raiser he had suggested she host to solicit the Russian immigrant base she wanted to build. He promised to speak if she got at least 250 people to come. But she let those plans drop.
‘Stop playing games’
Goldstein started pushing again for his political support. DiGiorgio, who had shied away from publicly supporting candidates in a primary, again told her he could not get involved in her campaign.
They argued on Facebook Messenger. She sent a screenshot of a campaign finance report, showing the law firm where DiGiorgio worked had made a large contribution to Dan Tinney, another Republican in the City Council primary.
“I get no invites to the White House, nothing?” she messaged him. “No petition help? You’d figure you’d want to help someone who can help you” build the party in Philadelphia.
He wrote: “We will get you to the White House at some point.”
“Stop playing games,” she responded.
DiGiorgio pushed back, telling her he had been “more generous with my time and giving advice to you than any other candidate.”
Goldstein, in a message Feb. 26, told DiGiorgio his generosity amounted to him “sexually harassing me, telling me it was my duty to the party and to the country to [expletive] you and then calling and telling me I’m the problem because I asked for advice from [the adviser] on how to handle this situation because I was afraid of retaliation and rightly so apparently.”
Asked by The Inquirer about her claim of retaliation, Goldstein said she had felt harassed by calls from people asking who she had told about communications with DiGiorgio. She did not identify those callers. After their December meeting to talk about the rumors, “I thought we left it in a good place,” she said.
In a reply to her, DiGiorgio denied any improper behavior, messaging he had been “a perfect gentleman” at the restaurant.
“I’m shocked and disappointed you would even suggest that to me,” DiGiorgio wrote. “I thought we were friends.”
Goldstein wished him luck, told him she had saved the messages, and expressed hope that “there will be no more interference from you.”
He tried to call her after that, Goldstein said in an interview. She didn’t pick up.
The primary was May 21. Among the seven GOP candidates vying for an at-large Council nomination, she finished last. Goldstein said she doesn’t blame DiGiorgio.
Asked if she had intentionally sought out or encouraged their online exchanges, she said: “Absolutely not. That wouldn’t even make sense. He Friend-requested me. He started propositioning me. I had to ask who he was.”