WASHINGTON -- New Hampshire Democrats are seeking to depose senior White House officials to learn what they knew about a 2002 episode in which a national Republican operative helped organize the jamming of Democrats' phone lines on Election Day, a scheme for which two GOP officials have already been convicted.
This week, as a Manchester judge considers a request to compel testimony and records from the White House and the Republican National Committee in a civil suit brought by the Democrats, the nearly four-year-old local political scandal spilled onto the national scene, with the chairmen of the parties trading barbs and accusations.
Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, sent a letter on Tuesday to his RNC counterpart, Ken Mehlman, citing the fact that the man convicted of organizing the phone-jamming called the White House political office repeatedly in the days before the election. Dean demanded that Mehlman say whether anyone at the White House or the RNC knew about the plot.
Mehlman, who in 2002 headed the White House political office, responded by saying he and his staff knew nothing of the plans. But Democrats fired back yesterday, accusing Mehlman of refusing to reveal the extent of the contact between the White House or RNC and the New Hampshire operatives.
''They're stonewalling because they can't face the truth," said Damien LaVera, a DNC spokesman. ''The law was broken here. We need to know where this goes -- who was involved in this, who authorized it."
The episode began with a political dirty trick engineered by New Hampshire Republicans on Nov. 5, 2002. Republican John E. Sununu, then a House member, was locked in a tight Senate race against Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, then the governor, in a contest some observers thought could determine control of the Senate.
In an effort to disrupt Democrats' get-out-the-vote efforts, officials with the state Republican Party hired a telemarketing company to tie up the hot lines that had been set up by Democrats and a firefighters' union to help get voters to the polls.
For about 90 minutes, computer-dialed calls tied up the hotlines, until the scheme was halted by state Republican officials who grew concerned about its legality. Sununu won the race by about 20,000 votes on a day in which Republicans swept the major races in New Hampshire and much of the nation.
The case has yielded three convictions so far, including those of the RNC's New England regional political director for the 2002 elections, James Tobin, and the then-executive director of the state Republican Party, Charles McGee. The third person convicted was Allen Raymond, a former Virginia telemarketing executive who was hired by the New Hampshire Republicans.
New Hampshire Democrats are now trying to prove that national political figures were involved in orchestrating or condoning the plan. On Tuesday, they asked a state judge to allow them to widen their inquiry in a civil lawsuit so that they can question former White House aides -- possibly including Mehlman -- and other national political figures about their conversations with state Republican officials.
''We want to know who was ultimately responsible for this," said Paul Twomey, a lawyer for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. ''When criminals are involved in committing crimes, you want to see who they're talking to."
Mehlman acknowledged in his statement Tuesday that he and his staff members had regular contact with New Hampshire officials on Election Day and the days leading up to it. But he said none of them knew of the state party's plans.
''To be clear, none of my conversations nor the conversations of my staff involved discussion of the phone-jamming incident," he said.
Republicans argued in court Tuesday that the lawsuit should be tossed out. Robert Kelner, a lawyer for the RNC, said that the Justice Department investigated the phone-jamming episode, and has not charged anyone at the White House or the RNC with wrongdoing, with the exception of Tobin.
''This lawsuit is election-year politics," Kelner said. ''It was filed in 2004, right before the election. And now it's picking up steam in a year where we have congressional elections."
Still, Democrats contend that several facts suggest more involvement by national Republicans than has been proved to date. Phone records show that Tobin made a flurry of phone calls to the White House political affairs office on and around Election Day. Twenty-four such calls were placed between Nov. 4 and Nov. 6 -- the day before and the day after the election.
Records also demonstrate that other New Hampshire Republican officials -- including John Dowd, then the state party chairman, and Jayne Millerick, a GOP consultant who would become chairman, called the same phone number at the White House on or around Election Day.
Frequent contact between the White House and those involved in close Senate races is typical in an election season, and Democrats concede that they have no evidence suggesting that the phone-jamming was discussed.
But Democrats say the volume of calls is reason to suspect that phone-jamming may have been discussed. Democrats already have Tobin's phone records and those of the local GOP office. They are seeking access to White House and RNC phone records, and want to ask GOP officials about the calls in sworn testimony.
Democrats also say that the RNC is paying Tobin's legal bills, a decision that has cost it $2.8 million to date. Republican Party officials say they are handling his legal bills because the charges arose from his official actions, and because he has maintained his innocence.
Tobin was found guilty in December of telephone harassment, and he faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced in May, though Tobin is appealing. Tobin was President Bush's New England campaign chairman in 2004, but he resigned shortly before the election when his name surfaced in the investigation.
Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com.