Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
In the end, Barack Obama used unconventional means to announce a conventional choice for his running-mate.
Via a three A.M. text message sent to the cell phones of his supporters, donors and volunteers, Obama's campaign declared that he had chosen Senator Joe Biden, the Delaware Democrat, to be "our" veep nominee. (Three in the morning--was this a dig at Senator Hillary Clinton or just a coincidence?) With this I'll-let-you-know-first gimmick, Obama had snagged millions of cell numbers and email addresses his campaign can use in the weeks ahead to motivate voters and push them to the polls on Election Day. So in purely tactical terms, his running-mate rollout was indeed pioneering and widely successful. What remains to be seen, of course, is whether he made a smart pick by attaching his campaign for change to a fellow who has worked Washington's ways in the Senate for 35 years.
Sometimes going conventional is not the wrong course. During the past weeks of veep-frenzy, Biden's assets and liabilities have been dissected repeatedly. He possesses extensive foreign policy experience (which Obama does not). He can do straight-talk relatively well for a senator (while Obama has been accused of not fully connecting with working-class voters). Then again, Biden has suffered in the past from both verbal diarrhea and gaffe-itis. I've attended many committee hearings in the Senate when Biden turned a question into a long-winded monologue that drove people in the room to want to shout, "Question, Senator, do you have a question?!!" And there are times when Biden's mental filter has switched off and he has said the dumbest thing, such as when he famously called Obama "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." (The Daily Mail headlined its account of Obama's pick this way: "Obama names 'gaffe-prone' Joe Biden as his running mate.")
But Biden is a smart legislator who has shown that he can suppress his own faults when he must. He had a good campaign this past year as a presidential candidate. He won few votes but performed well at the debates and demonstrated he could keep his infamous verbosity under control. At the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, while other Democrats got bogged down in legal jargon practically indecipherable to the average person, Biden peppered Roberts with straightforward questions about Roberts' claim that he merely wanted to be an umpire on the bench who calls constitutional balls and strikes. "Much as I respect your metaphor," Biden countered, "it's not very apt, because you get to determine the strike zone. The founders never set a strike zone." It was the best moment of the hearing.
Sean McFate is the son of Mary Lou Sapone (a.k.a. Mary McFate), the NRA-connected private spy who infiltrated the gun control movement for about 15 years. Her tale was first disclosed by Mother Jones last week. That article noted that Sean, a Brown- and Harvard-educated paratrooper, and his wife, Montgomery McFate, a controversial Pentagon adviser, had once both worked for Mary Lou Sapone's business, which specialized, according to an old version of Montgomery's resume, in "domestic and internal opposition research" and "special investigations." Sean and Montgomery McFate might also have been involved in Mary Lou Sapone's penetration of the gun control community.
More recently, Sean McFate was program director of the national security initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank boasting an advisory board composed of four former Senate majority leaders: Howard Baker, Bob Dole, George Mitchell, and Tom Daschle. That is, he was until the appearance of the Mother Jones story on his mother.
As that story was being posted last week, McFate was listed on BPC's staff list on its website. Days later, his name was gone.
Asked about McFate's fate, the BPC issued this statement:
So far the National Rifle Association's reaction to the Mother Jonesinvestigation that revealed that a NRA-connected mole had penetrated the gun control community for 15 years has been nothing but silence. No matter which media outfit asks the gun lobby for a comment--ABC News, Associated Press, Mother Jones--the NRA declines to say anything. It just refuses to explain its connection to Mary Lou Sapone, the self-described "research consultant" who infiltrated various gun control groups under the name of Mary McFate. As we first reported, a onetime business associate of Sapone said during a deposition that the NRA was a client for Sapone.
Why won't the NRA speak? Can anyone compel it to respond to the Sapone story?
Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, is the first in Congress to give it a try. On Thursday, he sent a letter to John Sigler, the president of the NRA:
I write regarding Mother Jones' recent expose of a reported National Rifle Association (NRA) operative who infiltrated a number of gun violence prevention organizations. This story contains serious allegations and I urge you to address them quickly.
According to Mother Jones, Mary McFate spent more than a decade rising through the ranks at several gun violence prevention organizations, including CeaseFire PA, Freedom States Alliance and States United to Prevent Gun VIolence. At the same time, however, McFate--going by the name Mary Lou Sapone--reportedly was a paid "research consultant" for the NRA. As a result, McFate/Sapone was in a position to learn about, and to report back to the NRA on, the concerns, plans and strategies of various gun violence prevention groups.
In light of these serious charges, I call upon you to immediately:
* Admit whether these charges are true or false;
* If these charges are true, disclose the precise nature of the NRA's relationship with Mary McFate/Mary Lou Sapone, including how much she was paid, the time periods for which she received payment and the services she provided;
* Make public the names (including any aliases) of any other NRA employees, consultants, members, or volunteers who have joined gun violence prevention organizations in order to report to the NRA on their activities; and
* Denounce and discontinue the practice of asking or encouraging NRA employees, consultants, members and volunteers to infiltrate gun violence prevention groups.
Although the NRA and I certainly have had our disagreements over the years, I hope that we can agree that the gun violence prevention debate should be based upon an open and honest exchange of ideas, not on underhanded tactics.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.
Lautenberg also sent copies of this letter to Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA, and Chris Cox, who heads the NRA's political arm.
Will Lautenberg receive a prompt reply of any substance? As an advocate of gun control measures, Lautenberg is indeed not one of the NRA's favorite legislators. But can the gun lobby ignore his request for information about its involvement in the McFate/Sapone episode? And if it does tell him to get lost, what might happen next? But whatever occurs, the NRA's silence up to now hardly allays suspicions about its role in the McFate operation.
Why won't the NRA speak? The National Rifle Association is not known as an organization run by people who are shy with the media. Yet the most powerful player in the gun lobby--and one of the most powerful political organizations around--still won't say anything about Mary Lou Sapone (a.k.a. Mary McFate).
Last week, Mother Jones broke the story of Sapone, who for about fifteen years was a gun lobby mole within senior levels of the gun control movement. Sapone was a self-described "research consultant" who had also penetrated the animal rights movement and environmental groups. But none of her operations--as far as is known publicly--were as extensive as her infiltration of various gun control organizations. And for at least some of the time that Sapone (as Mary McFate) worked at various gun violence prevention groups she had the NRA as a client, according to the deposition of a former business associate (as we explained in our story on her). Other evidence suggests a years-long relationship between Sapone and the NRA or gun rights advocates connected to the NRA.
So shouldn't the NRA have to address this? Before our story was posted, we called the NRA several times, explaining what we were going to report. Rachel Parsons, a spokeswoman for the NRA, promised she would get back to us. She never did. Other media outfits pursuing the Sapone tale have also received the brush-off. The Philadelphia Inquirer published a front-page piece two days after our expose and noted that its reporter had contacted the NRA, extracting no comment from the influential lobby. The same thing happened when ABC News did a report on Sapone. The ABC News team even found more evidence of the Sapone-NRA relationship: her neighbors in Sarasota, Florida, said that she "often spoke about working for the NRA."
Can anyone push the NRA to respond to the Sapone story and explain its involvement in this 15-year-long penetration of assorted citizens groups? Congressional Democrats these days are not too eager to be IDed with the gun control issue, but perhaps one of them in Congress--paging Chairman Waxman or Chairman Conyers?--could send the gun lobby a note asking a few pointed questions.
The NRA has been holding its fire on this one, obviously hoping that it can duck the story and that the Sapone mess will fade away. But maybe not just the media but the NRA's own members (and board members) ought to ask why the lobby was spying on its political foes, who at the organization authorized this covert activity, how much money was spent on it, and, perhaps most important of all, was Sapone its only agent, past or present.
This is the story of two Marys. Both are in their early 60s, heavyset, with curly reddish hair. But for years they have worked on opposite ends of the same issues. Mary McFate is an advocate of environmental causes and a prominent activist within the gun control movement. For more than a decade, she volunteered for various gun violence prevention organizations, serving on the boards of anti-gun outfits, helping state groups coordinate their activities, lobbying in Washington for gun control legislation, and regularly attending strategy and organizing meetings.
Mary Lou Sapone, by contrast, is a self-described "research consultant," who for decades has covertly infiltrated citizens groups for private security firms hired by corporations that are targeted by activist campaigns. For some time, Sapone also worked for the National Rifle Association.
But these two Marys share a lot in common—a Mother Jones investigation has found that McFate and Sapone are, in fact, the same person. And this discovery has caused the leaders of gun violence prevention organizations to conclude that for years they have been penetrated—at the highest levels—by the NRA or other pro-gun parties. "It raises the question," says Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, "of what did she find out and what did they want her to find out."
Using her maiden name, McFate, Sapone began posing as a gun control activist in the mid-1990s. Bryan Miller, the executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey, a grassroots gun control group, recalls first meeting her in the summer of 1998. The NRA was holding its annual convention in downtown Philadelphia, and the event drew the usual bevy of protesters. Among them was a middle-aged woman then living in Pennsylvania who made a point of introducing herself to Miller. In the following years, Miller would remember this encounter well, as he watched McFate rise from a street protester to a figure known nationally within his movement. She became a leader of Pennsylvanians Against Handgun Violence and later a board member of Ceasefire Pennsylvania. According to staffers at several gun violence prevention groups, she worked on the Million Mom March in 2000, when hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Washington, DC, to demand stricter gun laws. She joined the board of Freedom States Alliance, a network of nine state-based gun control organizations. At States United to Prevent Gun Violence, a nationwide coalition of anti-gun groups, she was the director of federal legislation, an unpaid position that placed her in charge of the outfit's lobbying efforts in Washington. In that role, she collaborated with national organizations including the Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center.