Something fishy is going on in New Hampshire and Iowa. Voters in the two early primary states have recently been getting phone calls raising questions about the Mormon faith and military deferments of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, R-MA. The implication is that a rival candidate - with emphasis on Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, whose Vietnam service in referenced positively in these calls - is behind the dirty tricks, seeking to influence the minds of potential voters.
But a far more conspiratorial take is gaining steam in the blogosphere. The theory is that Romney's campaign orchestrated the scheme, in hopes that the fallout would taint GOP rivals as character assassins.
On its face it seems preposterous. But commentators, online columnists, and political blogs are giving it increasing credence. And the idea is being talked about among insiders and higher-ups.
For starters, they note, the company behind the phone calls, Western Wats, is based in Orem, Utah, and its former executive, Ron Lindorf, is the founder of the BYU School of Business; meaning the anti-Mormon calls were, suspiciously, coming from a company with strong connections to the Mormon community. In addition, Western Wats' past client list includes several high-profile Romney supporters. The company has worked for Allan Bense, the Florida House Speaker who chairs Romney's Florida Statewide Steering Committee, and has made calls for Michigan State Representative Gary Newell, who serves on Romney's Michigan Leadership Team.
Then, they say, there is the money. A review of campaign finance data reveals that Hugh Black, a programmer at Western Wats has donated $500 to the Romney campaign, while Jeffrey Welch, a business manager, offered up $500 of his own. Amanda Earnshaw, a dialer (the job title is often emphasized by others) maxed out with $2,300. And Neil Hahl, who is currently on the board of American Capital Strategies, which acquired Western Wats in 2005, gave $4,600, half of which was returned.
Asked about these reports, Kevin Madden Romney's spokesperson responded: "Citizens have a right to donate, but we would reject outright any insinuation that these [calls] are tied to this campaign."
Even so, some sites have noted, there are direct personal relationships between Romney and Western Wats. Teena Lindrof, the sister-in-law to the founder and chairman of the company, is reportedly a friend and supporter of the former Massachusetts governor. And back in 2002, when Western Wats was seeking reimbursements from a customer service assessment agent, it was represented by Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the firm of G. Scott Romney, Mitt's brother.
But while the evidence suggests a long-standing political, if not socioeconomic, connection between Romney and Western Wats, it has to come with some serious and noteworthy caveats.
An official with direct knowledge of the 2002 lawsuit told the Huffington Post that G. Scott Romney was not a party to the case and showed up on documents only because of his position at the firm. Moreover, Romney's campaign has been vehement in its criticism of the calls, calling them "un-American," and even asking for an investigation into the matter.
"There is no involvement from our campaign," reiterated Madden, "which is why we have asked the New Hampshire attorney general to investigate."
Finally, Western Wats has a history of conducting overtly biased political push polls. In February 1996, a former employer of the company claimed that he was asked to help "smear" then-GOP presidential hopeful Steve Forbes on behalf of his opponent Bob Dole.
Asked to comment on the matter, a spokesperson for Western Wats declined.