Web of deceit?

Early on the morning of Aug. 24, Mike Harrison, the Republican candidate for the N.C. House of Representative’s District 114, launched a campaign salvo in cyberspace. In a posting on the Asheville Citizen-Times‘ online reader forum, he asserted that a local Democratic incumbent, Rep. Bruce Goforth, “was just rated by his peers as the third most ineffective legislator” in the N.C. House.

Soon thereafter, another poster challenged Harrison’s claim with data from the Raleigh-based North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that has analyzed state laws and the politicians who craft them since 1977. The center publishes a biennial ranking of legislators’ effectiveness; its most recent listing puts Goforth at 39 out of 120 House members.

Minutes later, Harrison responded with another post defending his claim. “This was a peer rating published by North Carolina Independent Public Policy Research Group,” he wrote, citing the Web address www.ncipprg.com. Quoting from that site, Harrison wrote that “the data sources incorporated in this effectiveness rating come strictly from the legislature and legislators themselves.” Harrison concluded, “In this peer review, Fisher [Rep. Susan Fisher, a Buncombe Democrat, is the incumbent Harrison hopes to unseat] was rated even lower than Goforth at 119 of 120. Sad but true.”

At first glance, the two research groups cited in the reader forum might be easy to confuse, given the similarities of their names and their Web addresses: www.nccppr.org and www.ncipprg.com.

But there’s a big difference between the two. The owner of the first site is a long-established, widely regarded research group. The owner of the second one is George Keller, chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party. And while the Raleigh-based research center makes its identity clear, the North Carolina Independent Public Policy Research Group offers little in the way of just who or what it is. The Web site, which was registered on Aug. 11, doesn’t name its author(s) or provide contact information. Nor has the purportedly “independent” group made a corporate filing with the N.C. Secretary of State.

For its part, the Center for Public Policy Research ranked Goforth and Fisher at 39 and 80, respectively, in terms of legislative effectiveness (there are a total of 120 members of the N.C. House). On the Web page posted by Keller, Goforth and Fisher are ranked much lower, at 118 and 119, respectively.

On Sept. 7, Fisher issued a press release blasting NCIPPRG as a “sham organization” that had spread “fraudulent information” via the Web. The group, she charged, “appears only to exist as an Internet front for Buncombe County Republicans.”

Five days later, Keller put in a radio appearance on the WWNC talk show “Take a Stand! with Matt Mittan” to speak to the issue. “The Buncombe County Republican Party had nothing to do with this Web site,” he insisted, saying his role was merely that of a “paid Web master” who put the information online. “I thought the study included interesting data that should be available,” he added, while stressing that “the study is not published by me, the study is put on the Web by me.”

Asked by Mittan who had paid to place the information online, Keller at first declined to say. But after the talk show host continued to press the point, Keller said that former state Rep. Mark Crawford was the person to ask. (Crawford lost his seat to Goforth in a 2002 race.)

Keller later told Xpress that Crawford was indeed his client, and that he charged him “expenses plus $50″ for the Web job. Keller declined to say what the “expenses” totaled.

At press time, Crawford had not returned calls from Xpress. (Keller told Xpress that Crawford is on a church retreat where he can’t be reached for comment.) The Web site Keller says he posted for Crawford says that the rankings listed there were compiled based on surveys submitted to members of the state legislature.

Policy Analyst Sam Watts of the Center for Public Policy Research, publisher of the oft-cited legislator rankings, declined to comment on the list Keller put online. He did note that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Keller says that for him this was just one of many Web jobs — and points out that his other Internet work has included five years as the volunteer Web master for the Asheville nonprofit RiverLink.

But Keller also says that the fracas over his Web work may have taught him some new lessons. While he “can separate myself as George the Geek from George the chairman of the Buncombe [Republican] Party, I’ve learned that I may be the only person who can make that distinction.”

Keller ended his appearance on Mittan’s radio show with a note of contrition. “I probably should remark, after today’s discussion, I believe that not all Republicans are perfect.”

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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