IT WASN'T until August, as the deadline approached for third-party candidates to file their nominating papers, that Jim Schneller says he began to realize he was an unwitting conspirator in a Machiavellian political ploy hatched by Delaware County Democrats.

The plan was simple: Gather enough signatures to secure Schneller's spot on the 7th Congressional District ballot so he could serve as a spoiler candidate, splitting the conservative vote with Republican former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan and propelling Democratic state Rep. Bryan Lentz to Washington.

Except that no one told Schneller, 54, an unemployed right-wing activist from the Main Line, that he was the bait to lure voters away from Meehan, he says. He just thought that the "volunteers" who hit the streets for him were being helpful. "I'm a victim," Schneller now admits. "I'm a victim of conspiracy."

Initially, the Democrats involved had said they helped Schneller, an anti-Obama "birther," in the spirit of inclusiveness, not to cut into Meehan's vote count in one of the nation's most competitive congressional races.

But transcripts of Commonwealth Court depositions reviewed by the Daily News point to an organized effort among Democratic leaders and committee people - a Lentz campaign worker played a central role - that concluded with an Aug. 1 meeting in the insurance office of Rocco Polidoro, a Lentz supporter who ran as a Democrat for County Council in 2007.

"We had a petition-notarizing event - a party, with snacks - and I met all of the folks who had gathered my signatures," Schneller said of the meeting at Polidoro's office the night before petitions were due in Harrisburg.

"When [the signatures] started to roll in, in the thousands, it dawned on me that there was some kind of foul play," he said.

The notary, according to court depositions, was brought in by Colleen Guiney, a Democratic committeewoman and leader of the Swarthmore Democratic Party. Lentz previously described her as "the hardest worker on my campaign." Schneller said that neither Guiney nor anyone else disclosed their Democratic Party positions or ties to the Lentz campaign.

"I was really surprised that Colleen was a party operative," Schneller said last week.

The depositions were taken during Meehan's unsuccessful attempt to have Schneller removed from the ballot. The Democrats' attorney, Dave Frankel, a former 6ABC weatherman, repeatedly instructed his clients not to answer questions about who was at Polidoro's office or what connections they might have to Lentz, according to the transcripts. Frankel said Friday that he couldn't discuss the case.

Guiney won't comment on her role, either. But in the days after Schneller's signatures were filed, several Democrats who had helped gather them dismissed any suggestion that their support for Schneller was designed to hurt Meehan.

Abu Rahman, president of the Delco Asian American Democratic Association, said he heard of Schneller from a friend and thought it would be a good idea to have a third candidate in the race.

"If not, the election is not interesting enough," said Rahman, whose wife, Shelly, a Democratic state committeewoman, also signed the Schneller petition. But, Rahman added, "I'm a very big supporter of Bryan."

"The more, the merrier," said Arthur Manos, a Democratic committeeman and union representative with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 152. Manos hadn't met or spoken with Schneller before dropping off the signatures at Polidoro's office, according to his deposition.

"I kind of like having a choice on the ballot," said Richard Cairns, a Swarthmore Democrat and Lentz supporter who also delivered his Schneller signatures at that meeting.

Cairns, a general contractor, had a different political philosophy leading up to the 7th District's Democratic primary in May. He filed ballot challenges against Democratic candidates Gail Conner and E. Teresa Touey in an effort to clear the primary field for Lentz.

As a result, a judge removed Touey from the ballot. Conner dropped out of the race, leaving Lentz as the sole Democratic candidate.

An anti-abortion 'birther'

So, who is Jim Schneller?

He's the kind of guy who makes liberals foam at the mouth. Behind his back, some Democrats call him a certified nutjob, even if he is their not-so-secret weapon to hold onto outgoing U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak's congressional seat.

A small-government proponent and strict constitutional constructionist, Schneller supports an across-the-board federal spending freeze. He wants to phase out the Federal Reserve, the Department of Energy and other "unconstitutional agencies." He considers Radnor Township to be "gun country." And he's a so-called birther who filed a lawsuit in 2008 questioning Obama's citizenship in an effort to block him from being sworn in.

Last week, Schneller said that he still has doubts about whether President Obama is eligible to serve because he may not have been "born on our soil."

"As long as he's in office, it's an issue, because we need his loyalty," he said.

Schneller, who once worked for New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs, describes himself as "fully trained in the law," although he does not have a law degree or college diploma. In recent years, he has bombarded the local courts with unsuccessful lawsuits, including one accusing hospital staffers of "murder in the first degree."

An anti-abortion activist, Schneller believes that abortion should be illegal in almost all circumstances, including when a pregnant woman is a victim of rape or incest.

"That question always makes pro-lifers look like unkind people," he said. "Ask the baby."

Schneller, who occasionally speaks and writes in the third person, wants a new commission to investigate the 9/11 terrorist attacks to determine whether bombs might have been used or if World Trade Center employees were involved.

At a recent debate, Schneller said that he would vote to repeal Obama's health-care bill but that "extremist activists" should drop their efforts to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans openly gay and lesbian troops from serving in the military.

Some Delaware County Democrats are privately repulsed by their party's support for Schneller. The scheme has caused a much larger backlash than Lentz and his supporters had anticipated. With the election a week away, "Schnellergate" is getting national coverage, including in Friday's New York Times.

Meehan calls it "a case study in why people don't trust politicians," and Schneller himself has turned against Lentz, saying that the Democratic nominee would "rather do wrong than right just to win a race."

"It's one of the most distasteful strategies I've ever seen," Schneller said.

'Not a mortal sin'

After months of silence, Lentz finally acknowledged the obvious Tuesday during a meeting with the Delaware County Daily Times editorial board that was live-streamed online. He said he was aware that his supporters were helping Schneller, who would challenge Meehan "from the right."

"I did not see it to be a mortal sin to help him get the remaining amount of signatures that he needed," Lentz told the editorial board.

Lentz has since declined to elaborate on that statement, or to say whether he or his campaign had asked his supporters to collect the signatures. "I want to get people back to focusing on the difference between me and Meehan," Lentz said Saturday.

State and county Democratic Party bylaws prohibit committee members from supporting candidates opposed to the party. Asked Friday whether Guiney and the other committee members might have violated those bylaws, Delaware County Democratic Party Chairman David Landau said he wasn't sure.

"That's an internal matter for the party, and nobody has complained about it," Landau said. "I have not really looked into that issue."

Landau said he wouldn't expect Guiney, whom he appointed to the state Democratic committee last month, to be reprimanded or removed from her party posts if someone did file a complaint. "Arguably, she was acting in the best interest of Bryan Lentz" by helping Schneller, Landau said.

Democrats in several states have been assisting third-party conservatives in an attempt to siphon votes from Republican candidates and hold off a wave of GOP victories. Two Democratic Party officials in Michigan resigned after it was reported that they'd tried to get supposed tea-party candidates on the ballot.

Schneller, who raised $125 between July and September according to the most recent campaign-finance reports, is touting his independence - even tea-party groups are steering clear - as a reason why voters should choose him over Meehan or Lentz.

"I think experience amounts to very little with politics, because the longer you're in the system the less likely you're going to stick up for your people's rights," he said between campaign stops.

Schneller has virtually no chance of winning, but he could be the deciding factor in the Lentz-Meehan matchup. This month's Daily News/Franklin & Marshall poll found that 2 percent of likely voters were supporting Schneller, with Meehan ahead of Lentz by only 3 points and 34 percent of voters still undecided.

If the race tightens and Schneller takes a couple of percentage points away from Meehan, the Democrats' scheme could get Lentz elected. Lentz has defended the strategy by pointing out that it's not illegal. Schneller agrees. But, he says, that doesn't make it right.

"I'll tell you what," Schneller said. "There's no law against it. But there's no law against putting milk all over your neighbor's car overnight."