Updated: Trone Says He Has Fired Three Employees for Spying on Competitors
8th District congressional candidate says staffers had "volunteered" in rivals' campaigns
Updated Wednesday – Democratic congressional candidate David Trone said Tuesday afternoon that he has terminated a campaign supervisor and two employees who had “surreptitiously volunteered” for the campaigns of his two leading 8th District opponents—Kathleen Matthews and state Sen. Jamie Raskin.
Earlier Tuesday, Matthews' campaign manager accused a worker from Trone’s campaign of posing as a volunteer to gain access to her campaign headquarters in Bethesda.
Ethan Susseles, campaign manager for Matthews, wrote a letter to Kurt Staiger, campaign manager for Trone, in which he claimed the worker, identified only as Joseph, walked into Matthews’s campaign office Monday and offered to work as a volunteer.
While Joseph’s last name is blacked out in the body of the letter, a link to the man’s LinkedIn profile included in the letter identifies him as Joseph Butensky, a field organizer for the Trone campaign.
Susseles wrote that Matthews campaign staff trained Butensky and sent him out to canvass voters. Susseles claimed that Butensky returned to the Bethesda office 45 minutes later, claiming he had knocked on all of his assigned doors.
“Due to the abnormally short period of time he spent canvassing, we suspected that the data was not real, so we called the voters on the walk list,” Susseles wrote. “We quickly determined that the doors were not knocked on, and we suspected that Joseph was up to some type of malicious behavior.”
Susseles wrote that Butensky also “proceeded to walk around our office and attempted to enter the senior staff office. Another staffer prevented him from entering and he promptly left.”
Contacted shortly after Susseles made the allegation, Trone told Bethesda Beat that “it’s certainly nothing I would ever condone, that’s for sure. It sounds like somebody is struggling over there and they’re mad about the money we’re spending on TV and radio.”
Trone’s campaign launched a $900,000 TV and radio ad blitz last week, the same week the co-owner of Total Wine & More announced he would take on Matthews, Raskin and other candidates for the Democratic nomination for the 8th District seat.
Later Tuesday, however, Trone told Bethesda Beat a miscommunication led to two campaign workers attempting to infiltrate the campaigns of Matthews and Raskin.
Trone said the motives and modus operandi of the canvasser who went into the Raskin campaign offices were “similar” to what happened in the case of the employee who went to the Matthews campaign offices. “A young person went into Raskin’s [campaign offices] fishing for information,” according to Trone.
When asked whether the Trone campaign supervisor was aware that the young staffers were planning to infiltrate his opponents' campaigns, Trone replied: "Let's say there was lousy communication. He was aware that they were going over there [to the Raskin and Matthews offices], sure, but what he thought and they thought they were all doing were two different things.”
Trone indicated that while the supervisor was aware of the canvassers’ plans to visit the Matthews and Raskin offices, there were no indications the supervisor had instructed them to do so.
Trone's campaign also released a statement saying he fired the two employees and their supervisor after investigating the incidents and called Matthews and Raskin to apologize.
Raskin, when reached by phone Tuesday evening, downplayed the incident. He said senior staffers in his campaign had identified a young volunteer who was “acting in somewhat bizarre ways” while part of a huge group of volunteers.
“This is not exactly Watergate,” Raskin said. “It is not going to cause any kind of crisis in our campaign. I don't know what they were looking for, maybe my decade of success in Annapolis.”
Raskin added that he hopes Trone will release the names of the staffers involved in the “amateur espionage” to “tamp down any paranoia.”
When asked about what Trone said when he called, Raskin said the businessman had yet to contact him.
“I just received a call from David Trone’s secretary who asked if I would be available later tonight,” Raskin said. “So I have not had the chance to speak to David Trone yet, but when I talk to him I might ask for a loan.”
Butensky and Staiger couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
Matthews, the former Marriott International executive and local TV news anchor, and Raskin have far outpaced the other five candidates for the seat so far when it comes to campaign fundraising.
The two have been regarded as the front-runners for the nomination for months. Trone’s jump into the race last week was a surprise to many and the 60-year-old Potomac resident has said he’ll use his considerable wealth to self-fund his campaign.
Susseles wrote the alleged incident was disappointing, “not only because it is unethical, but also because it came less than 24 hours after David called Kathleen and personally pledged to run a clean, positive campaign.
“We understand your candidate has virtually unlimited resources,” Susseles wrote. “We hope that you will restrain from using them to plant people in our campaign office. Please cease and desist immediately.”
With reporting by Andrew Metcalf and Louis Peck