The Democratic candidate in one of the region's hottest congressional races came clean Tuesday about his role in helping a third candidate get on the ballot in the hopes that he'll play spoiler.

Bryan Lentz, who is locked in a bitter battle for Congress with Republican Patrick Meehan, told the editorial board of the Delaware County Daily Times on Tuesday that he knew his volunteers had helped gather signatures for the independent candidate, Jim Schneller. Schneller, who espouses tea party rhetoric, is expected to siphon some votes from Meehan in the Seventh Congressional District race.

"If somebody's already made the decision to run, I didn't think that 'helping' with the process of signature petitions was improper," Lentz, 46, a two-term state representative, told the paper's editorial board in a tape-recorded interview.

Lentz said he could not remember when he had first learned of his volunteers' work on Schneller's behalf. He added, "I didn't think it was a bad thing for the process or for my candidacy."

His words marked the first time Lentz has squarely addressed his volunteers' role in having helped collect some 4,800 signatures to get Schneller's name on the Nov. 2 ballot. Lentz had ducked reporters' questions about the matter this summer when campaign aides to Meehan, a former U.S. attorney, raised the issue.

Meehan's forces reacted swiftly on Tuesday.

"It's about time Bryan Lentz would admit what the media has been reporting on for months," said Meehan campaign manager Bryan Kendro. "Despite his efforts to fool voters about his role in supporting Schneller's candidacy, he was forced to come clean, and he should apologize for not being forthright."

Schneller - whose past political activity includes filing a lawsuit challenging President Obama's citizenship - began his campaign for Congress long before Lentz volunteers circulated petitions on his behalf. Lentz pressed that point on Tuesday. "I did not encourage him to run for office," the Democrat said. "He made that decision on his own."

That would make the circumstances a little different from what has been alleged in one red-hot New Jersey congressional race. The GOP, claiming Democrats put up a fake tea party candidate, has asked the Federal Election Commission to examine ties between Peter DeStefano's campaign and that of Democratic incumbent John Adler.

So far neither the Delaware County GOP nor the Pennsylvania Republican Party has asked for a federal inquiry into Schneller's candidacy.

For his part, Schneller, 54, of Wayne, says he was unaware of any concerted Democratic effort to get his name on the ballot.

Lentz said that by the time his campaign stepped in, Schneller had already gathered 4,000 of the 4,200 signatures needed to get his name on the ballot. Schneller turned in nearly 8,000 signatures in all.

Schneller's presence on the ballot has "forced Meehan to take a position one way or another on whether he's the tea party candidate," Lentz said. "That would end up being the benefit of it, I think."

Asked if he regretted helping Schneller, Lentz said, "That's an open question in my mind. But I think about it."