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Videos attacking lawmaker stir probe

An unknown group warned it would air the "secrets" of a GOP member of the Pa. House unless she changed her stand.

PE1VIDEO31 - Frame from video called "Anonymous Message to PA State Rep. Tarah Toohil"
PE1VIDEO31 - Frame from video called "Anonymous Message to PA State Rep. Tarah Toohil"Read more

HARRISBURG - First came the video of an upstate Republican legislator, taped before she entered politics. Dance music played as she sat at a table with a bong and what looked a lot like pot.

She appeared ready to kiss a girl.

Someone e-mailed the video to State Rep. Tarah Toohil's colleagues last fall when they were in session. A Democrat recalled hearing "strange, distinctive music" on the House floor.

Then, just before Election Day, another anonymous video surfaced, urging Toohil to switch her stance on marijuana laws - lest the senders expose her "secrets."

Now, at the request of House Republicans, Pennsylvania State Police have embarked on an investigation into who was behind the videos, The Inquirer has learned. At least a half-dozen people have been questioned, including other legislators - with several being asked about Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R., Delaware), who once dated Toohil.

State police officials have declined to comment. A person close to the investigation said it was active and ongoing. Toohil has turned down repeated Inquirer requests for interviews, as has Miccarelli, a Ridley Township Republican and Iraq war veteran.

Miccarelli did say through a spokesman that what happened to Toohil was wrong and shows no one is immune from cyber attacks. He said he would work to bring Pennsylvania's laws in line with "the 21st cyber century."

Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House GOP, said the caucus contacted police because of "a clear threat made to a House member."

"We referred it to our counsel's office, and then in turn to the state police," he said.

State police have yet to establish criminal activity in the matter, the person close to the investigation said. "Bad behavior," he said, "is another matter."

On its face, the investigation is a high-tech whodunit as police work to trace the videos. Behind that lies a messy tale of Capitol politics and personality.

Toohil, 33, entered last fall's campaign with reason to be confident. She had, after all, faced stiffer competition: In 2010, as an upstart tea party candidate little known outside her Luzerne County district, the young lawyer had toppled Todd Eachus, one of the House's most powerful Democrats, helping her party gain a majority in the 203-member House and positioning her as a bright new face in Harrisburg.

Then, last Oct. 16, a video titled "Pizza Party" was posted on YouTube.

Set to music that sounded ripped from a 1980s music video, "Pizza Party" displayed photos of a younger Toohil - at a table with what looked to be marijuana and a bong; she was also seen leaning toward another young woman, as if to kiss her on the lips.

The video, posted on YouTube by a group calling itself "parepublicans4truth," asked viewers whether Toohil espoused "traditional family values." The group gave no information about itself. The state elections bureau, where candidates and political committees register, has no record of such a group.

The video went viral in political circles. In the Capitol, too - someone made sure of that by e-mailing a link to House members. It hit their in-boxes during a House session, said three legislators who were in the chamber that day.

They told of hearing an unusual sound waft across the House floor: the song "Street Dancer," a 2011 remix of a 1980s break-dancing hit.

By all accounts, Toohil was devastated. She posted a video of her own, acknowledging she was one of the "young women" in the photos, and warning young people of the perils of dabbling in drugs.

But the attacks on her were just beginning.

Around that time, a TV ad aired in Luzerne County, paid for by her Democratic challenger, Ransom Young, featuring a snapshot of Toohil atop a camel in Israel, with a young man's arms around her waist.

The man was Miccarelli, whom she was dating at the time. They have since broken up.

In an interview, Young said he took the ad off the air after the bong video went viral, because he did not want to give the impression of piling on. The Democrat said he had no idea who made the bong video, or how the photos of Toohil surfaced.

Who was behind the bong video? A note posted later on YouTube seemed to offer clues. The writer took credit for the video, said it was meant to get Toohil to reassess her opposition to legalizing medical marijuana, and said the photos of her had turned up anonymously online.

The writer did not give a name.

Young said his campaign got the camel photo from Miccarelli's Facebook page. That picture was innocent enough - Miccarelli and Toohil, both single, were part of an annual educational trip to Israel organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

But the short-lived ad set off fresh talk about Toohil's personal life. Her hometown newspapers pounced on the trip - she said she paid for part of it with campaign funds - as well as her relationship with Miccarelli, who was elected to the House in 2008.

State House Democrats, too, saw an opening. Toohil, after all, had unceremoniously defeated then-Majority Leader Eachus in 2010. Bitter over the loss, Eachus raised money to help Young's campaign, according to three Democrats involved in last year's races. At Eachus' urging, the House Democratic Campaign Committee spent about $100,000, just days before the Nov. 6 election, to air a tough ad - featuring photos of Toohil from the bong video, as well as the camel photo.

The decision to run that ad was controversial, with some Democrats arguing that it crossed the line of political decency - and wasted precious resources on an unwinnable race.

Reached for comment recently, Eachus, who now handles communications for a private firm, said he no longer talks about politics and would not discuss any role he may have played in efforts to unseat Toohil.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) said in an interview that the Democrats' campaign committee decided to spend the money because Toohil's was a seat they had previously held for nearly three decades. He noted that she had run in 2010 as a family-values candidate.

"And she defeated our leader," Dermody said. "We wanted to get the seat back."

Meanwhile, another video was posted to YouTube.

It featured an image of an empty suit, with a question mark in place of a head, as well as a montage of the black-and-white Guy Fawkes masks that were popularized by the film V for Vendetta and that have become a symbol for protests such as the Occupy movement.

The 85-second video borrowed the slogan of Anonymous, the elusive hackers who have taken on everyone from the Church of Scientology to banks: "We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive, we do not forget. Expect us."

The voice-over, female and British-accented, said the "legions" were disappointed by Toohil's response to the surfacing of photos showing her with what appeared to be marijuana. The voice demanded she support decriminalizing the drug - or else.

"Everyone has secrets," the voice intoned. "Please do not give us a reason to expose yours."

"It was uber-creepy," said a top House Republican who asked not to be identified. "And it crossed a line."

George Parry, a Philadelphia defense lawyer and former state and federal prosecutor, agreed. After reviewing the "secrets" video at The Inquirer's request, he said that on its face, it could constitute criminal conduct in that it aims to sway a legislator.

"This appears to be an attempt to influence legislative action . . . a threat to cause harm to this legislator's reputation," he said. "And I think that has broader social implications than just a private citizen being subjected to blackmail."

Tracing Internet content can be slow and circuitous. Authorities sometimes use search warrants, but savvy computer users can duck that by sending content from places offering free wireless, such as a coffee shop or bookstore.

As for the human side of the investigation: Among those questioned have been legislators and their friends. One person state police contacted is Rep. Jim Christiana (R., Beaver).

In an interview, Christiana said investigators called him last fall to discuss what he called "the reprehensible" videos. He declined to give details of investigators' questions. Asked why they would want to speak with him, Christiana said he believed it was because he had shared a Harrisburg apartment with Miccarelli last year when the House was in session.

"I'm a former roommate of an ex-boyfriend, and I'm a colleague to both Tarah and Nick," he said. "That may have been the reason. I don't know how wide a net they cast."

Two other people, who described themselves as friends of Miccarelli and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said state police came to them, too, with questions about the young legislator - what he was like as a person.

"It was very brief," one of them said of the questioning. "But it was nerve-racking."

As for Toohil, she easily won reelection despite the uproar over the videos. She and other legislators have gone about their business even as state police try to figure out who threatened a House member, and why.

Said the GOP's Miskin: "It's in their hands."