Ariel Benjamin Mannes toured the congressional campaign trail this summer, recorder in hand, grilling candidate Scott Wallace and saying he worked for the Bucks County Courier Times.
But Mannes is not a reporter. He's a former police-officer-turned-political-operative who posted Wallace's answers on websites that track candidates, cataloging footage for attack ads. And he was pulling a paycheck from the campaign of Wallace's opponent, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.
Mannes, a Port Richmond resident, used a false name while masquerading as a credentialed reporter at at least five events featuring Wallace, the candidate's campaign said — once even paying the $50 fee to attend a fund-raiser at a brewery, an unusual move for a journalist covering a political race. Some of the footage he recorded was picked up and distributed in a news release by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
His deception came to light Saturday, when the Courier Times published a story detailing its investigation into Mannes' behavior.
"I think one of the things we as journalists implore is to be up-front about who you are and what you're doing," Shane Fitzgerald, the paper's executive editor, told the Inquirer and Daily News on Tuesday. "My concern is that when someone like this pulls a stunt like that, it taints journalists who are well-meaning and have integrity. We have enough of our own fights with the public and politicians that we don't need things like this."
Mannes, 42, did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Nor did a spokeswoman for Fitzpatrick's campaign.
Fitzpatrick told the Courier Times that Mannes' conduct was "completely unacceptable" and said the campaign had severed its ties to him.
Campaign-finance records show that Mannes was paid nearly $6,000 in wages this year. Fitzpatrick campaign spokesperson Genevieve Malandra told the Courier Times that he was hired part time to do door-to-door canvassing work. She said the campaign had no idea Mannes was attending events and questioning Wallace. Such behavior, she said, was "completely unauthorized and unsanctioned."
Fitzgerald, the Courier Times editor, said the congressman called him to apologize, saying he learned of the campaign worker's impersonation from the newspaper.
"He was mortified this was happening," Fitzgerald said. "We're his home district newspaper here, and he's always had a good relationship with us."
Wallace's campaign manager, Eric Nagy, condemned Mannes' behavior in a statement Tuesday, but said he wasn't surprised "that Republicans would send somebody to our events and ask them to pose as a reporter so they can record Scott undetected."
"We're used to trackers, that's just the game these days, but as a campaign we work really hard to be transparent and accessible to the press," Nagy said. "And for someone to introduce themselves as a reporter for a local paper — using a fake name — and then take home a paycheck from our opponent, Rep. Fitzpatrick, is shockingly unethical."
This isn't the first time Mannes has gotten caught pretending to be someone he is not. In 2006, he was convicted of impersonating a police officer while working as a bouncer at a downtown Washington nightclub, court records show. He was also convicted of carrying a gun without a license. The charges stemmed from a brawl at the club during which bystanders alleged that Mannes pointed a gun at them, claiming to be a cop, Washington City Paper reported.
In the intervening years, Mannes worked as a security consultant with various organizations, and served as the director of test security for the American Board of Internal Medicine, according to a resumé posted on his personal website. After relocating to Philadelphia, he founded "Philadelphians for Ethical Leadership," a self-described watchdog group pushing for greater oversight of elected officials.
He also penned opinion pieces for several major news organizations on school safety and gun control, including the Philadelphia Daily News, The Hill, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and the Daily Caller.
But it wasn't until this summer that he started attending local news conferences, passing himself off as a reporter.
Mannes' often off-topic questioning of Wallace confused longtime local journalists, including Tom Sofield, who runs the independent news website Levittown Now.
"He was very aggressive at asking questions, and at one event his questions lined up with what the national GOP talking points were," Sofield said. "I assumed he was sent by some national outlet, but I could never find a story from him at an event we both covered.
"That's when I thought something was off, especially with how budget constraints are in newsrooms in 2018," Sofield said. "Nobody sends a reporter to multiple events, to not see a single piece of content being published."