Fake Twitter account, Republican Party of Florida feud linked

A fake Twitter account aimed at discrediting a prominent critic of state GOP leaders has been linked back to a senior official at the Republican Party of Florida.

The party this week fired that official, director of the party's field operations department Tim Nungesser, and insisted no one else knew about it.

The victim, however, says that top party officials were aware of what was going on and did nothing until law enforcement identified the culprit. He urged Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum to investigate and then demand the resignation of the party's executive director and state chairman.

"This is not about me. It's about the Republican Party of the state of Florida cleaning up its act and doing the right thing and getting back on a positive footing so people have confidence in the party again," said Jason Steele, chairman of the Brevard County Republican party.

It was the second time in a week in which the state GOP has faced questions about its online activities and whether it is taking sides in intraparty battles. A top Republican operative and Charlie Crist adviser working out of the state party headquarters last week acknowledged he had helped put together an anonymous Web site criticizing Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio but said the party had nothing to do with it.

Steele, a vocal critic of the state party leadership's spending, said that about three months ago someone called him and urged him to tone down his Twitter messages. Checking online, he discovered a Twitter account with his name and photo that since April had been tweeting often vulgar comments about party officials.

"I about had cardiac arrest," said Steele, a recovering alcoholic whose Twitter impersonator also had suggested he was drinking again. "My family and I have been politically devastated by all this garbage."

The Brevard County Sheriff's Office subpoenaed records from Twitter and from an Internet provider, said Agent Tim Anliker, who expects to wrap up the investigation within the next week.

Anliker declined to identify a suspect, but Steele said the Sheriff's Office tracked the Twitter account to a computer in Nungesser's Palm Bay home. Steele said he spoke to Nungesser and was told that Delmar Johnson, the party's executive director, had seen the account.

"Delmar laughed about it, and did not instruct him to take it down," Steele said. "I don't want to see Nungesser prosecuted. I want to see Delmar Johnson and Jim Greer resign."

Nungesser could not be reached for comments Wednesday. The state party released a statement saying the "totally unacceptable" fake Twitter account was done without the knowledge of any other party employee: "We have taken all appropriate action and the employee has been terminated. This is a continuation of a long-standing political feud between those Brevard County individuals involved (and) is not in any way connected with the Republican Party of Florida."

Gov. Charlie Crist said he was aware of the matter and was confident no other top officials besides Nungesser were involved.

"My understanding on it is that the individual who apparently did do that was terminated," Crist said.

Steele has been at odds with state party leaders for months, in large part because he had looked into challenging Republican state Rep. John Tobia, who beat him by 86 votes in 2008. Greer and party leaders put Steele on probation for sending e-mails criticizing party leaders.

This is not the first time partisans have used Twitter to impersonate rivals. The popular social networking service recently shut down 33 fake Twitter accounts created by Connecticut Republicans using the names of Democratic legislators to mock them.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Fake Twitter account, Republican Party of Florida feud linked 11/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 11:07pm]

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