Michael Connell

From CAVDEF
Jump to: navigation, search
Connell.jpg

Michael Connell was a Republican IT consultant with close relations to the Bush family and Karl Rove. He got his start working on numerous political campaigns before entering the political technology business. Connell founded two companies, New Media Communications for campaign services and GovTech Solutions for government services, and assisted other GOP tech firms and lobbying groups. New Media scored dozens of contracts from Republican campaigns, national and state parties, and interest groups, while GovTech built systems for the White House, congressional subcommittees, and more.

As the Bush Administration became engulfed in scandals, Connell began to emerge as a key player. He was behind the White House email system, central to the US attorneys scandal and Don Siegelman prosecution, and played a role in building the election reporting system for the 2004 Ohio election, which enabled electronic vote rigging. Connell was subpoenaed in 2008 for an election lawsuit concerning 2004 Ohio. While evasive at his November deposition, he later appeared to be struggling with his conscience and indicated a desire to testify further. In late December 2008, he was killed when his private plane crashed. The circumstances of his death were suspect, especially as Connell had received threats over his testimony and encountered suspicious problems with his plane.

Biography

Family and early life

GOP political consulting

In 1984, while studying marketing at the University of Iowa, Connell became deeply involved with Republican politics.[1] He began his political career in 1986 as the Finance Director for Jim Leach's congressional reelection campaign. For the 1988 presidential election, Connell worked on George H.W. Bush's Iowa campaign and was then promoted to Bush's national campaign, designing a delegate tracking system. Bush appointed him to the Department of Energy in early 1989 as a Legislative Affairs Specialist. Following that, Connell returned to political consulting, working on Indiana Senator Dan Coats' 1990 campaign, legislative redistricting for Iowa, and a 1992 congressional race in New Hampshire.[2]

Connell became Ohio congressman Martin Hoke's press secretary in 1993.[1][2] Hoke ended up being the first Ohio congressman to have an email address. This was likely thanks to the influence of Connell, who was an early adopter of technology in political campaigns. In late 1994, Connell left Hoke's office and moved to Ohio, where he founded New Media Communications, a political technology consulting company.[3]

New Media was initially run by the Connells out of their basement, and its early years were quite rocky. In 1995, using the Internet was still a foreign idea to most politicians, so New Media's business of developing websites attracted little demand. Connell hailed the Internet as a bold new invention in 1996, comparing it to the printing press, but was cynical about how quickly it would be adopted by campaigns. Business was so difficult that in 1996, the Connells declared bankruptcy.[1][3]

But in 1998, Connell received a high-profile client that would get New Media off the ground. Jeb Bush hired Connell to build a website for his Florida gubernatorial campaign. That same year, Connell designed a website for Bob Taft's Ohio gubernatorial campaign. Bush and Taft both won their elections.[1] Connell also did web development for an assortment of state Republican parties and PACs.[2]

The lobbying firm DCI Group partnered with New Media in 1999, forming DCI/New Media.[3] Even more Republican clients soon followed. By 2000, New Media had grown from a tiny basement startup to a $3 million business with 38 employees.[1]

They received another big break when George W. Bush's 2000 campaign hired New Media to redesign their website. Connell and his company spent 45 days making it easy to use.[1] Bush became the official winner in 2000 after a close Florida race and recount, although the election was marred by irregularities.

Heather, Connell's wife, founded GovTech Solutions that same year. As opposed to New Media, which did partisan work for Republican candidates, GovTech was a nonpartisan company pursuing government contracts. Until September 2001, the DCI Group was a minority stockholder in the company. The General Services Administration approved GovTech as a vendor in 2002 and 2004, allowing them to streamline the bidding process in contracting with federal agencies.[3] GovTech built the IT infrastructure (such as websites and mail servers) for the White House, Department of Energy, and several congressional committees.[4]

As the Internet grew commonplace, both of Connell's businesses expanded. Aside from Republican campaigns and state parties, political action groups (like the NRA) and corporations (like Microsoft) hired New Media.[1] In 2004, New Media built websites for Bush's reelection campaign, 3 Senate campaigns, 7 House campaigns, and the Republican National Committee. Connell joined with R. Rebecca Donatelli to form Connell-Donatelli, a web advertising company[3] that created the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad campaign against John Kerry.[4] GovTech, meanwhile, was the web designer for 37 members of Congress. At least four Republican winners in 2004 who had used New Media's services hired GovTech to build their congressional website.[3]

For 2006, New Media designed the websites of over 24 state Republican parties and worked on Ken Blackwell's Ohio gubernatorial campaign.[3]

International activism

Connell also consulted in foreign elections for the International Republican Institute (IRI) and USAID. He was a volunteer at the IRI from at least 2000[3] to 2008.[5][6][7] According to Stephen Spoonamore, Connell and him shared "a mutual interest in democracy building [...] worldwide" and have "mutually participated in activity to forward this goal"[8], implying they both worked together on international election projects.[9] New Media built websites and sent text messages to voters for the 2000 Slovenia general election, and Connell also did work in the 2000 Macedonia parliamentary elections.[3] In 2003, Connell provided web development advice to a Croatian NGO supported by the IRI, which was dedicated to professionalizing journalism in the country.[10]

2004 Ohio election

In the 2004 Ohio election, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell contracted with GovTech to build the election night results website.[3] Ohio's 88 counties transmitted their results to a statewide tabulator at the SoS's office, which GovTech's election reporting application aggregated and displayed. GovTech's contract also included a mirror site to take over if the main site got overwhelmed, a job that fell to SmarTech, a partisan-Republican server hosting company. Throughout the night, county election results were rerouted to SmarTech and anomalous returns favoring Bush appeared. This raised fears that the Ohio vote was altered by SmarTech, which had a strategic position as a man-in-the-middle (MITM) between county and state tabulators.

King Lincoln case

GovTech's role in the 2004 Ohio election made Connell a person-of-interest in the King Lincoln Bronzeville v. Blackwell case. Filed in 2006, it charged SoS Blackwell with discriminatory voter suppression and vote rigging. Not long after the King Lincoln case began, independent researchers at ePluribus Media discovered the rerouting of the Ohio election returns through SmarTech. With the ensuing revelation that Bush Administration emails were also hosted on SmarTech servers, the King Lincoln attorneys took notice. Stephen Spoonamore joined the case in July 2008 as an expert IT witness, opining that SmarTech's role was likely malicious. Since Connell's company had built the Ohio election reporting system that incorporated SmarTech, the King Lincoln attorneys sought his testimony.

Connell was subpoenaed in late September of 2008. He attempted to quash the subpoena, claiming that the information sought was both "readily ascertainable through public records request" and "confidential, trade secrets, and/or proprietary information [...] not known to the public".[11] However, he was ultimately compelled to give a deposition on November 3, 2008, the day before the 2008 election.

In his testimony, Connell stressed multiple times that the election results website had no connection to vote tabulation systems. However, the Conyers report on the 2004 Ohio election specifically mentioned a county whose tabulator was linked to the SoS's office, and many of the tabulators were confirmed to be remotely-accessible or could have been rigged for remote access. Another strange statement was Connell's denial that he had worked on the White House email system, despite GovTech having worked on White House IT infrastructure that included "Internet communications projects". And in spite of the fact that GovTech had almost always used SmarTech for hosting, Connell was adamant that Blackwell, rather than himself, picked SmarTech to handle the mirror site.

His inconsistencies and apparent lies notwithstanding, Connell did reveal some important tidbits. He testified that, to the best of his knowledge, there was no "failover situation" on election night that would have necessitated SmarTech taking over the election returns. That meant that SmarTech's appearance on election night as a MITM most likely lacked any explanation beyond vote rigging. And Connell mentioned his collaboration with employees at Triad GSI on another election-related project for Blackwell dealing with voter registration.[12] Triad was formerly identified as the voting system contractor responsible for rigging tabulators and manipulating the recount in the 2004 Ohio election. Thus, Connell admitted to working closely with two companies that had suspicious roles in the election.

Connell, according to journalist Larisa Alexandrovna, had a desire to talk following the deposition. Since late 2007, his conscience had been eating at him over his involvement with unethical GOP activities. He made an effort to appear before Congress as an expert on election issues, but as the White House email scandal unfolded, Connell pulled back. In early summer of 2008, Connell once again became interested in setting up a meeting, but Rep. John Conyers and Dennis Kucinich's congressional staffs appeared to fumble it.[13] At the same time, Connell started receiving threats, as confirmed by Connell himself and King Lincoln attorney Cliff Arnebeck[14], and he clammed up again. But Alexandrovna managed to talk to Connell before the end of 2008, confirming the threats and that "Mike was getting ready to talk. He was frightened."[15]

His sisters Shannon and Mary Jo both felt that he was upset following the deposition. Mary Jo characterized him as "stressed out and depressed" on his November birthday, and Shannon noted that he unusually didn't respond to one of her emails.[16] Combined with Larisa Alexandrovna's account of the situation, Connell appeared to be facing an internal struggle over whether to come forward.

Death

On Friday, December 19, 2008, Connell's private plane crashed while flying from College Park MD to Akron-Canton OH. He had spent the day in Washington D.C., and was returning to Ohio to attend a GovTech/New Media Christmas party.[17] On his approach to an Akron-Canton runway, air traffic controllers informed Connell that he had drifted left of course. They directed a re-approach, but before Connell could perform it, he declared an emergency and went down. His plane crashed into an empty house in Lake Township OH. Connell was ejected from the plane and killed instantly.

The plane broke up, caught on fire, and tumbled into a neighbor's backyard. Several witnesses called 911, and the Greentown Fire Department was dispatched at 5:54 PM, just a minute after the crash. They arrived 4 minutes later and put out the fires. On his way there, Capt. Geisner attempted to find out about the size of the plane and who was onboard, but Air Traffic Control told him they were "all in lockdown" and couldn't release the information.

The State Highway Patrol in North Canton was alerted at 6:04 PM, with their first responders arriving at 6:22 PM. Stark County's medical examiner came at 7:03 PM to collect Connell's body, later identified as him through fingerprints. An FAA crew arrived several hours later to clean up the scene and move the plane into storage. It was transported in the early morning of December 20 to a nearby Lockheed Martin hangar.[18]

Due to Connell's central role in the GOP's illegal activities and the threats made against him, many people became suspicious of his death. They believed Karl Rove or his associates had Connell murdered to prevent him from talking. GovTech president Randy Cole and Connell's wife Heather dismissed this idea, with Cole chalking the crash up to bad weather[17] and Heather denying that Connell had anything to do with criminal activities.[19] Connell's sisters (both progressives) initially dismissed the possibility that their brother had been assassinated, but came to believe that his death was too suspiciously timed not to be deliberate.[16][19]

There were, in fact, several strange aspects of the crash. Connell was an experienced pilot who had logged thousands of miles and knew how to cope with inclement weather.[17] And according to a local CBS station reporting on the crash, a close friend of Connell's warned him not to fly his plane out of fear it was sabotaged, and Connell cancelled two flights due to "suspicious problems with his plane".[20] Larisa Alexandrovna corroborated at least one aborted flight (which occurred just a day before the stay was lifted in King Lincoln) that was due to "engine trouble".[18] The handling of the crash was suspicious as well. Air Traffic Control's "lockdown" and refusal to provide information to the fire department was an odd occurrence. And rather than waiting until daylight to examine the scene, as federal guidelines stipulate, the plane was investigated at night and moved to a private hangar. Many of Connell's posessions were recovered and returned to Heather, but suspiciously missing was Connell's Blackberry, used to communicate with his Republican contacts.[19]

Many sources hypothesized that the crash was simply due to poor weather conditions. However, the NTSB's preliminary report found no evidence of icing[21], and despite a claim from the Akron Beacon Journal that visibility was only 1 mile, the National Climate Data Center had visibility in the area at 9-10 miles at the time of the crash. The temperature was also slightly above freezing.[17]

In late 2009, almost a year after Connell's death, the Connell family and King Lincoln attorneys received an anonymous memo claiming to be from an assassin who had sabotaged his plane. Shannon Connell had her suspicions over Connell's death confirmed by the memo. Arnebeck considered the letter credible and passed it along to the FBI.[19] The letter was also received by the NTSB, which claimed to have forwarded it to the Cleveland FBI. Some intelligence community experts reportedly believed the letter to be genuine[22], but others considered it suspect.

The letter, sent by "Mark Felt", contained an "after-action report" about a covert operation to "neutralize" Connell. It detailed the installation of an AMD microprocessor in Connell's plane the morning before his death, used to hijack his flight. Based on the report, Connell was targeted by black ops agents as a national security threat to eliminate, but the anonymous letter concluded with the words "Connell was not NST (national security threat)".[23]

Heather Connell, by 2010, had grown less willing to accept that the crash was an accident. She was disgusted by the 2008 plane crash investigation, which left behind pieces of Connell's body and mysteriously failed to return his Blackberry. Originally refusing to entertain the idea that Connell had been murdered, she tearfully told journalist Simon Worrall when asked in early 2010, "I don’t know. I don’t know."[22]

Controversies

Bush Administration emails

Main article: Bush Administration email controversy

GovTech Solutions, one of Connell's companies, built the IT infrastructure for the Bush White House, including its "Internet communications projects". It would later be revealed, during the US attorneys scandal, that several White House staffers (including Karl Rove) were conducting official business on private RNC email accounts hosted by SmarTech. Connell denied any involvement with the White House emails, but the fact that he worked on White House communication systems, intentionally left this off the GovTech website, and frequently used SmarTech for web hosting implies he did build the email system and attempted to hide his role. According to Stephen Spoonamore, Connell discussed the White House email system with him in 2006 and asked about permanently destroying data, potentially alluding to the private Bush Administration emails that would go missing.[24]

2004 Ohio election

Main article: 2004 Ohio general election

Connell was at the center of the electronic fraud in the 2004 Ohio election. GovTech built the election reporting system which put SmarTech, a partisan GOP server company, in a central position to alter election results. On election night, SmarTech took over the results reporting and corresponding irregularities favoring Bush were observed. Connell denied a direct role in election theft, but allegedly told Stephen Spoonamore that he may have allowed GOP partisans to take advantage of his systems to rig elections.[8]

Foreign election rigging

Connell worked abroad on democracy building under the auspices of USAID and the IRI (largely funded by USAID). USAID has been criticized as a front for covert CIA operatons and manipulating foreign elections. It is unknown if Connell's activities extended into this area, but certainly possible. Connell was also potentially connected to election fraud in the 2004 Ukraine election. According to CIA agent Steven Stigall, Viktor Yanukovych's campaign electronically altered election results with a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack, similar to what was employed in the 2004 Ohio election. Yanukovych was advised in 2004 by Rick Davis and Paul Manafort, co-owners of GOP lobbying firm 3eDC whose "strategic partners" included New Media Communications (Connell's company), two Connell-affiliated GOP tech firms, and SmarTech's parent company Airnet.[25]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Local Ohio article on Connell
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Harvard profile on Connell
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Article on New Media Communications
  4. 4.0 4.1 CBS article on Mike Connell
  5. IRI 2003 report
  6. IRI 2004 report
  7. IRI 2008 report
  8. 8.0 8.1 Spoonamore Sept. affidavit
  9. Spoonamore Oct. affidavit
  10. USAID report on Croatia mentioning Connell
  11. King Lincoln case and Connell
  12. Court filings regarding Connell
  13. Larisa Alexandrovna's on Connell's conscience
  14. Alleged threats against Connell
  15. Connell was allegedly getting ready to talk
  16. 16.0 16.1 Connell's sisters suspicious of his death
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 Visibility on Connell's flight was not as bad as believed
  18. 18.0 18.1 Additional info on Connell plane crash
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 Reactions of Connell's family
  20. Suspected sabotage of Connell's plane
  21. Preliminary NTSB investigation found no icing
  22. 22.0 22.1 Simon Worrall, "The Mysterious Death of Bush's Cyber-Guru", 2010/02/10
  23. Letter with after-action report about Connell
  24. Connell asked Spoonamore about deleting emails
  25. Connell linked to 2004 Ukraine fraud

External links