Jamie Comer's decision to leak e-mails to newspaper went wrong
Lowell Reese, KY Roll Call reprinted with permission
This is a story of how an ex-girlfriend of a candidate for governor in the 2015 Republican primary altered the destiny of the Commonwealth. The story is based on confidential interviews that Kentucky Roll Call conducted over the past two months with credible sources close to the campaigns of Jamie Comer and Hal Heiner.
Note to readers: This is an analysis. The full facts in this story may never be known, not even in a court of law, due to attorney-client privilege involving some of the players. Click on the links as they appear below to read source documents. (WKJ Ed. Note - links probably do not work)
The ex-girlfriend, Marilyn Thomas, a native of Union County, Ky., now living in New York City, alleged that she had been in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with Jamie Comer in the early 1990s when they were students at Western Kentucky University, and during that relationship he drove her to Louisville for an abortion.
Comer denies the abortion and that he abused Thomas. See The Courier-Journal, May 5, 2015.
Rumors and gossip about the relationship had been spreading on the campaign trail for more than a year before the election, but the allegations never were seen in print until ill-gotten e-mails were leaked to reporter Sam Youngman of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The story ran Wednesday, April 29 -- 21 days before the election.
The lifespan of the story might have been about three days had it not been for what happened next. After read- ing Comer's denials in the Herald-Leader, Thomas made a decision to tell her side to reporter Joe Gerth of The Courier-Journal in a 1,700-word letter. Her decision launched The Story of the election, and it was the tipping point of Comer's campaign.
But she became unsure about whether to send it. After all, for nearly a year, she had remained silent as rumors and gossip swirled in political circles across the state about her former relationship with Comer and the
But after reading Comer's blanket denials, which made her out to be a liar, Thomas broke her silence and sent the let- ter to Gerth as an e-mail. He interviewed some folks based on information she pro- vided, and The Courier-Journal ran Gerth's story on Monday, May 4, five days follow- ing the Herald-Leader story.
How 'The Story' of the 2015 primary began
Michael J. Adams, a licensed but non-practicing attorney in Lexington, and a conservative blogger on politicians and public issues, became increasingly focused on Comer's alleged abuses of Thomas. And he published his research with provocative content and commentary on his blog, Kentucky War Journal, which is subtitled: Information on Kentucky Political Battles.
Adams' self-portrayal is of a warrior who arms himself with research and hits hard. He has a secondary site, Kentucky War Journal Subblog, created to hold more detailed material on subjects he links to his main blog.
At some point in the summer or fall of 2014, Adams met Hal Heiner's running mate for lieutenant governor, KC Crosbie, at a political event in Winchester and told her about his research on Comer. She told Adams that she didn't have time to deal with it and asked him to send the information to her husband, Scott Crosbie, a Lexington attorney.
What developed from there is yet another example of how e-mails -- today's paper trail -- have played promi- nent roles in political scandals and elections. On the national level, Hillary Clinton has an e-mail problem now. In Kentucky in 2007, e-mails provided evidence of violations of the merit system that blocked Gov. Ernie Fletchers' re-election bid; and eight years later, e-mails were the taproot of the biggest story in the Republican primary for governor.
If Matt Bevin, the Republican nominee, wins in November, e-mails may have again influenced Kentucky's choice of governor.
Of course, many factors determine the outcome of an election. That no single factor operates in a vacuum is universal: Everything is connected to something, and something is connected to everything else, just like the old spiritual song, "Dem Dry Bones," says, "The knee bone is connected to the thigh bone."
But the media stories that sprung from the allegedly stolen e-mails hobbled Comer and Heiner enough to allow Matt Bevin to win the primary.
Democratic state auditor Adam Edelen has been one of Adams' targets, among others, but the bulk of Adams' postings, by far, have been aimed at Comer, and not just about his ex-girlfriend. He has lobbed grenades at Comer on a variety of policy issues, including Kentucky's hemp program, Comer's coziness with Kentucky Farm Bureau lobbyists, and his voting record as a former member of the General Assembly where he voted in favor of a bill that will enrich his own legislative pension an estimated $467,906.
On Oct. 6, 2014, Adams started a series on what he called "Kentucky Domestic Violence Awareness," keying on the allegations that Comer had physically and mentally abused Thomas. He didn't start any rumors about the abuse allegations, as far as I know, but he spread the talk.
Whispering about the allegations became widespread on the campaign trail in the governor's race during the primary. In February, for instance, at the Pulaski County Lincoln Day Dinner, a local point man for GOP primary candidate Will T. Scott told a candidate for another constitutional office that he had "all the stuff on Comer and the girlfriend," and was going to come out with it about three weeks before the election. The candidate said he moved away from the point man as soon as he could and told Scott, who dropped the point man from his campaign in the county.
Adams began exchanging e-mails with Scott Crosbie apparently last fall. Most of them were one-way--from Adams to Crosbie, whenever Adams' research revealed something he felt worthy of sharing with Crosbie.
Crosbie in return would reply to Adams' e-mails often enough to encourage him to continue his research on Comer, because he was impressed with Adams' skills as a researcher -- finding things that even the Heiner campaign had not been able to find.
Crosbie and Adams at some point agreed to meet at O'Charley's restaurant in Lexington. A natural thing to do, it seems, given their mutual interests. However, Youngman's April 29 story inferred the meeting had a dark, foreboding motive, and that the pair were plotting to derail Comer with lies and rumors without evidence.
Adding another level of intrigue, it appears that someone hacked or gained illegal access to the e-mails that Adams and Scott Crosbie had exchanged, and somehow those e-mails made their way to the Comer camp.
Who leaked e-mails to Herald-Leader and why?
Actually, it was the Comer campaign that leaked the the e-mails to the Herald-Leader. A source in a position to know told Kentucky Roll Call that leaking the e-mails was a "calculated decision...that went wrong."
Comer had not expected Marilyn Thomas to speak out about their relationship, since she had remained silent as the rumors were circulating on the campaign trail. Emboldened by her silence, the Comer campaign rolled the dice and leaked the e-mails, thinking it would damage Heiner by linking the husband of his running mate to the aggressive anti-Comer blogger.
Comer had time to prepare for the questions he anticipated would be asked at the press conference that he would call once the story ran. Nice strategy, or so it seemed.
What the Comer camp also didn't count on was Thomas' level of anger at Comer's blanket denials to the news media; she felt he had publicly embarrassed her, made her a liar.
Comer's "calculated decision" to leak the e-mails arguably led to his defeat, as the eagle contributed the feather for the arrow that killed it.
Back to Monday, April 27. Reporters Sam Youngman and John Stamper of the Herald-Leader knocked on Adams' door at his home and read him "a couple of snippets" from the private e- mails Adams had exchanged with Scott Crosbie, which mysteriously had found their way to Youngman.
The reporters asked Adams if he had met with Crosbie at O'Charley's restaurant, a meeting apparently revealed in one of the e-mails, and Adams said yes.
Herald-Leader story more about Heiner than the content of the e-mails and blog
The story that ran two days later was not really about the content of the e-mails or the commentary on Adams' blog. It was primarily about an interpretation of the meaning of the connection between Adams and Crosbie, being that Crosbie is the husband of Heiner's running mate.
The way the story was written, readers were left with an impression that there might be a wicked collusion between Adams, Crosbie and the Heiner campaign --to damage Comer by some dark means.
Although Youngman's story was primarily about Heiner, he presented no proof that Heiner--who carries an earned, sterling reputation card--was ever involved in any kind of smearing of an opponent during his political career. The story did not say or imply that Heiner's running mate was involved, or that she brought anything back to the camp--only that her husband was encouraging an anti-Comer blogger.
Yet, the headline of Youngman's story read: "Exclusive: Heiner apologizes to Comer over campaign's communi- cation with controversial blogger."
Following the paper's promo telling readers in the headline that it was an "exclusive," and therefore impor- tant story, the next two words were -- "Heiner apologized," which imprinted in the readers' minds right off the bat that Heiner had done something wrong, even though there's no evidence he did.
Further, the first paragraph of the story re-enforced the word 'apology' from the headline: The first paragraph read: "A Lexington blogger, who has repeatedly alleged but offered no proof that Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer once assaulted a woman, acknowledged this week that he communicated with people associated with Hal Heiner's gubernatorial campaign about his efforts to discredit Comer."
That made it seem that Adams had confessed to being in collusion with the Heiner camp and that he did something immoral, underhanded or awful enough that Heiner apologized. Adams did not acknowledge or confess wrong-doing to Youngman and Stamper.
Further, of the first 11 paragraphs in the story, 10 were about Heiner. The inference being that Heiner was guilty of something--whatever it was--by association; that being, his running mate's husband had an arms- length, friendship with a blogger bent on discrediting Comer.
Ironically, Youngman roasted Adams for "repeatedly" alleging without proof that Comer abused Thomas; and, yet, Youngman himself inferred without proof that Heiner was playing dirty. Allegations by Adams, inference by Youngman? Nobody I am aware of has proof of any of this.
In sorting this out, I have found no evidence that Adams and Scott Crosbie hatched a plan jointly to discredit Comer with the assault allegations. Adams' blogs were not favorable to Comer, which Crosbie encouraged. But the best I can make of it, each of them were acting independently. Crosbie played a secondary role as a champion of his wife's campaign, cheering Adams.
Adams did quite a bit of research on Comer on policy issues, entirely separate from the subject of the former girlfriend. All of which lured the curious Crosbie into an acquaintance and occasional exchanges of e-mails and at least one face-to-face meeting.
And no evidence has been found that Heiner had any- thing to do with Adams' research and relationship with Scott Crosbie. Nonetheless, the Herald-Leader story made it appear that Heiner was not only working with a controversial blogger to discredit Comer, but that Heiner might have actually had a hand in starting the rumor about Comer.
All of this played perfectly into Comer's hands. The Comer campaign gave the ill-gotten e-mails to Youngman, anticipating Youngman would bring Heiner into the story in a way that would discredit Heiner.
Unwittingly, Youngman participated in that political scheme. But if the allegations that Comer assaulted and abused a woman were doing damage to Comer's cam- paign, as generally perceived, why in the world would Comer fan that negative by leaking information about it to the press? Theories on why the Comer camp leaked the e-mails Sources offered several theories not only on why the Comer camp leaked the e-mails but also the timing, as follows:
1. Comer knew the allegation would end up in print, either before or after the primary.
3. At the time of the leak, Comer was running third with only about 30 days remaining in the election, and he needed to energize his campaign. [Heiner's pollster, Fabrizio, Lee & Associates, of Fort Lauderdale, Fl., did a private internal poll for him, conducted April 19-20, which was roughly one week before the Youngman story was printed, which showed Matt Bevin leading with 33 percent, followed by Heiner...26, Comer...21, and Will T. Scott...3.]
4. It now appears that Comer calculated correctly on some points: (a) that Heiner's campaign would be the centerpiece of Youngman's story, because the husband of his running mate was caught encouraging a blogger out to descredit Comer, which by associat- ion made Heiner appear to be a dirty-trickster; and (b) that the story would tarnish Heiner's nice-guy image and create doubt about the veracity of the assault allegations overall.
Who stole the e-mails from whom ... and did Democrat Danny Briscoe outfox the Republicans?
his story came to our attention and prompted our research when a Republican source on the inner circle of one of the candidates told me he had reasons to believe that Danny Briscoe, the Democratic guru of strategy in Kentucky politics, actually orchestrated-- through GOP operatives he outwitted--the leak of the e-mails in order to clear the path for Matt Bevin, who the Democrats wanted to win the primary: the tea party aligned Bevin, they figured, would be the easiest Republican for the Democrats to beat in November.
That's a plausible theory, that Briscoe did it, because, by reputation, he is capable of pulling off such a stunt. But he didn't.
The theory about Briscoe was born, or at least fueled, on election night when KC Crosbie, Heiner's running mate, said as she was introducing Heiner for his conces- sion speech, "I also want to thank my biggest fan and a good friend of mine, Danny Briscoe, for his wisdom and advice."
That stunned some of Heiner's supporters in the room.
Why would she praise a Democrat in front of all of those TV cameras and reporters? But there's soundness to it. Briscoe and KC and her husband, Scott -- have been good friends for years. Briscoe worked with KC professionally on three of her previous local races and in a lesser way when she ran unsuccessfully in 2011 for state treasurer; and he worked with Scott on two races for local offices.
However, fueling the speculation that Briscoe may have successfully orchestrated a grand scheme for Bevin to win the nomination, Briscoe had key contacts with activists inside the both the Heiner and Comer campaigns.
Briscoe had a political but not personal relationship with Riggs Lewis, the lawyer-lobbyist who was the Jefferson County coordinator for Comer, and the alleged carrier of the leaked e-mails to the Lexington Herald- Leader.
Also during the campaign, Briscoe exchanged e-mails at least five or six times with Jim Deckard, a Comer inner-circle supporter and lawyer in the same Lexington law firm, Hurt, Crosbie & May, with Scott Crosbie, until Crosbie left at the end 2014 to form his own firm. Crosbie's e-mails, including his exchanges with clients as well as Michael Adams, remained on the computer server of his old firm after he left--as part of the negotiated separation.
Even though Briscoe had friends in both camps, no evidence has surfaced that he was involved in leaking the e-mails to the press. There was a rumor that he traveled to New York and met with Marilyn Thomas. That didn't happen; she doesn't know who he is, not even his name.
The e-mails that Adams and Scott Crosbie exchanged, or at least part of them, are believed to have been stolen, either by someone who hacked Adams' computer or the computer server in Crosbie's former law office--or, as some sources suspect, the e-mails could have been taken from the server in Crosbie's former law office by some- one who had access. Logic does not support the thought that Crosbie or his wife, KC, would have leaked the e-mails, not on purpose. But did a third party in the Heiner camp somehow obtain the e-mails, and through that route they ended up in Comer's hands? Only those involved with the theft of the e-mails, or their distribution, know.
Scott was a principal for 17 years in Hurt, Crosbie & May, and the e-mails he had been receiving from Adams, during the period in question here, apparently went to the server in that office.
The firm had two attorneys, other than Crosbie, who are political activists -- Republican James Deckard and Democrat William May. The husband of Rep. Sannie Overly, Mike Kalinyak, is an attorney in the firm, but a source said he is not a political activist. Also, the firm has a lobbying arm, HCM Government Relations, which has a non-lawyer lobbyist, Stephen Huffman, who is a member of the Kentucky State Board of Elections.
Deckard was chief-of-staff to former Supreme Court Justice Joe Lambert before joining Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher's office near the end of Fletcher's tenure, as counsel to help the governor break loose from a stran- gle-hold that Democratic Attorney General Greg Stumbo had on him over the governor's firing and demoting state employees in violation of the merit system.
May is a grandson of highway builder/political king- maker Bill May in the 1960s-70s.
Deckard and May worked out a deal between Fletcher and Stumbo that cut Fletcher loose. After a stint as executive director of the Kentucky Bar Association, Deckard joined May at the law firm, and its name, after Crosbie left, was changed to Hurt, Deckard & May.
Scott Crosbie, in partnership with Scott Mattmiller, opened his new law firm, MattmillerCrosbie PLLC, in April.
The story of the stolen e-mails
ere we enter the shadows, the dark side of Kentucky politics, the game where anything goes -- steal, lie, intimidate, manipulate, threaten and spin, especially spin reporters and voters.
Adams was puzzled. How did the Herald-Leader get possession of his private e-mails? Was his computer hacked? Or, did Scott Crosbie, somehow, compromise their e-mail exchanges? Adams had not shared them with any third party.
While it shouldn't be ruled out that Adams' computer was hacked, most of the speculation is on a computer server in Scott Crosbie's former law office.
On April 30, the day after Youngman's story ran in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Adams posted on his blog that another blogger, Jake Payne, editor of Page One, had written that Comer was aware that allegations about him assaulting Marilyn Thomas had been circulating at least a year before the election, and that Comer tasked Riggs Lewis to find out about it.
Payne knew that to be a fact, according to Adams, because Payne had posted: "I helped them [Comer and Lewis] get to the bottom of it...And, according to Lewis, there's evidence to suggest members of the Heiner campaign are sources of the information."
Note the phrase "are sources of " in the above para- graph. That's different than saying, "the source of." The former may be interpreted as saying people in the Heiner campaign heard and took part in gossip at rallies and dinners on the road, which is likely, given the nature of rumors and political gatherings -- that's what they do, exchange political talk. But the wording, "are sources of," is broad and runs short of saying outright that Heiner's campaign created the allegations, but it infers they did.
On May 1, the day after Adams' post, Payne wrote on his blog, "The emails apparently came from the email server of Scott Crosbie's old law firm."
In a later posting, Payne reported that Riggs Lewis gave the e-mails to Sam Youngman.
Marilyn Thomas breaks silence
Marilyn Thomas may or may not have celebrated Comer's defeat; she may or may not feel vindicated; but her decision to give her side of the story to Joe Gerth, as you will see, changed the course of the Commonwealth, regardless of who wins the governorship in November--for the outcome could have been different had she remained silent after Youngman's story. She turned the abuse allegations into The Story of the primary election.
In her letter, Thomas laid out that she did not wish to get involved in the gubernatorial race or discuss her past, "But I have no choice," she wrote, "but to speak up against the lies....Did Jamie Comer hit me? Yes."
The following are further excerpts from her letter.
• "It was a relationship that lasted more than two years, not 'a few months' as it was printed in the Lexington Herald-Leader," she wrote; and that it set her back emotionally "in what I can only describe as post-traumatic stress."
• "The harsh reality was that the relationship with Jamie was toxic, abusive, and caused me a lot of suff- ering. His controlling and aggressive personality alienated me from most of my family and friends at the time. Everything I did, everywhere I went, and everyone with whom I interacted had to be approved. Consequences were violent and swift otherwise."
• "There was a moment when Jamie called my parents at 2AM to make violent threats against me. It still bothers my [now 83-year-old] mother to this day. There was a moment when Jamie told my roommate that I was a whore because he had given me money for something that I couldn't afford."
• "And then, there was a very depressing and life-altering moment when we went to an abortion clinic in Louisville on a rainy day in November of 1991 that has mired every single aspect of my existence. A doctor there gave me a small piece of paper as a record of my appointment that I have kept all these years. The desperation of my 19 year old self being there was compounded when Jamie was enraged because I had used his real name on a form. The clinic required proof that I had an escort to take me home who was over 18. I kept that piece of paper as a reminder of what desperation and rock bottom feel like. For more than 20 years that piece of paper has been a source of anxiety and shame. But, it was mine. It was only mine. And now the world wants me to share it with them. That piece of paper, and all the scars of my relationship with Jamie, were reduced to fodder last week [Youngman story] to tear down a politician [Heiner], who I have also never met."
• "And then the very personal and painful story about the abortion was sent in an email to Riggs Lewis, who is one of Jamie's campaign advisors. I reached out to Riggs Lewis directly and, in no uncertain terms, demanded that they leave me out of this campaign."
Fake e-mail account and private eye firm
A source told Kentucky Roll Call: Who hired the private eye?"Think who would benefit the most."
Michael Adams says someone pretending to be him created a fake Yahoo e-mail account using the michaeljadams00@yaho . com. Through that faux identity, they sent an e-mail to Riggs Lewis and blind copied Thomas and Adams.
The content of the fake e-mail is unknown to Kentucky Roll Call. But according to Adams it con- tained a veiled threat to Thomas to keep quiet or her abortion would become public and her parents would then know.
If that is true -- the fake e-mail threat -- it suggests that the message in the e-mail to Thomas and its timing were calculated to be in front of the leaked e-mails to the Herald-Leader and in front of Comer's press conference once the story was printed.
Someone hired an international private-eye firm, Guidepost Solutions LLC, headquartered in New York City, to investigate Thomas.
The former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a potential candidate for the presidency of France before he was arrested in New York for sexually assaulting a hotel housekeeper, hired Guidepost to dig into his accuser.
Somebody paid big bucks to have Thomas investigated. And it was likely paid for with private funds to avoid it showing up on a campaign finance report.
The answer narrows when considering the goal of the investigation, which evidently was not to get her to talk, but to dig up dirt about her life-style and find flaws in her character that could be used to tarnish her credibility -- and perhaps to intimidate her to keep her mouth shut.
Who paid for the private eye to follow Thomas and presumably investigate her background? A source told Kentucky Roll Call: "Think who would benefit the most."
Thomas told Gerth in her letter to him that after Michael Adams disclosed where she worked, "reporters and shady private investigators called my office relentlessly....[and she] couldn't spend Christmas in Kentucky last year because paid private investigators had found out where my parents live."
And there was talk going around that the private detective firm tried to talk with everyone from Thomas' high school graduating class.
On May 8, before the election, Thomas posted on her Facebook that she had been "hunted like a wild animal for the last eight months by reporters and private investigators."
Through a Kentucky Roll Call source, Thomas said a private investigation firm was all over her, "hanging out in front of her apartment" and following her around New York -- monitoring where she went, day and night, and with whom.
Thomas' letter also revealed that Gerth had talked with Thomas on Sept. 4, 2014-- more than eight months before the e-mails were leaked to Youngman, which gives credence to the fact that gossip about the alleged abuses was circulating on the campaign trail as far back as the summer of 2014, and no doubt earlier.
The Courier-Journal stories doomed Comer
In the 1995 governor's race, the Republican nominee, Larry Forgy, lost to Paul Patton by 21,378 votes out of nearly 1 million cast. Going into the final weekend, internal polling had Forgy ahead. Afterward, Forgy told me how it felt, losing a race that close, by quoting John Greenleaf Whittier, "Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest of these, 'It might have been.'"
Comer lost the 2015 Republican primary for governor -- and in all likelihood the governorship -- by 83 votes. In hindsight, he could have made up 83 votes plus one in a lot of places
But he lost thousands of votes in the prime circulation area of The Courier-Journal as a result of his calculated decision to leak the e-mails to the Herald-Leader, which brought Marilyn Thomas' name into print and cost Comer the election.
Throughout the final 16 days of the primary, The Courier-Journal ran story after story about the abuse allegations and the e-mails. The effect on voters was contained mainly to the paper's prime circulation area in Jefferson County and the counties adjacent to Jefferson. The Courier-Journal, once dominate statewide, now has a small penetration out in the state -- virtually nonexistent in the far eastern and western regions.
Of the four candidates in the Republican primary, two were from Jefferson County -- Hal Heiner and Matt Bevin. So Comer, who's from rural Monroe County in southern Kentucky, did not expect to win Louisville and Jefferson County. But his goal was 20 percent. He got 12.6 percent. The number of Republican votes cast in Jefferson County was 35,097. So Comer received 2,597 fewer votes in Jefferson County than he had counted on.
Here are some election results and tallies -- C-J stories killed Comer's chance to be governor
Pike...7.5, Elliott...7.4 -- each of which had under 700 votes, except Pike with 1,767.
At public events after the election (e.g., the Marshall County GOP Breakfast at Fancy Farm, and the Kentucky Farm Bureau Ham Breakfast at the State Fair), Comer, from the podium, took 'ouch' swipes at The Courier-Journal, clearly telegraphing that he felt the paper cost him the election. And a respected Comer volunteer said, "He [Bevin] ought to thank Joe Gerth for being the nominee."
State's six congressional districts (by # of votes) CD Bevin Comer Heiner Scott Total 1 9,240 18,033 3,913 1,129 32,315
State's six congressional districts (by % of votes)
he four candidates on the ballot in the May 19 Republican primary coincidentally finished the race in alphabetical order: Matt Bevin (Louisville)...70,480 votes; Jamie Comer (Tompkinsville)...70,397; Hal Heiner (Louisville)...57,951; Will T. Scott (Pikeville)...15,365).
The charts below provide the number and percent of votes received by each of the candidates by congressional districts and TV markets.
Comer's best performance was 95 percent of the votes in his home county of Monroe, where 3,312 Republicans voted; his worst performance was 7.4 percent in Elliott County, but Elliott had only 27 Republicans who voted.
Of all 120 counties, Comer's percent of the vote was higher in 114 counties than his 12.6 percent in Jefferson County. In fact, he received a lower percentage in only six counties, all in Eastern Kentucky: Floyd...12.0, Lawrence ...10.0, Menifee...8.6, Martin...8.5,
TV DMA* -- Lexington & Louisville (by # of votes) Bevin Comer Heiner Scott Total
TV DMA*--Lexington & Louisville (by % of votes) Bevin Comer Heiner Scott
Ending note: Interesting, that Marilyn Thomas' mother is 83 years old this year...and Comer lost the election by 83 votes.