|Into the labyrinth|
|A look at the web of personas used to shield identity while apparently trying to influence public opinion (PDF).|
EVERETT — He crusaded on behalf of Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon for more than a year.
He built a digital maze, a series of blind alleys that guarded his various identities.
And for a literary touch, he borrowed names from fiction: a classic French novel, a Spanish mystery series and an Australian horror story.
As “Edmond,” he used public records laws to bombard county officials he considered Reardon enemies, seeking emails, phone records and other documents that would allow him to monitor their activities.
As “Lain,” he went online to fling mud at detectives who were investigating Reardon and to attack journalists covering the case. He even took swipes at a citizen in Gold Bar, a lawyer who has delighted in lobbing numerous records requests at government officials great and small, including Reardon and his staff.
He named one company after a famous street in Paris and used it to threaten the county with litigation. He sent couriers to buy money orders and pick up government records on his behalf, so he never had to show his face.
He used anonymous Web pages, fake Twitter accounts and spoof email addresses.
|Council weighs in|
|• Snohomish County Council members are considering hearings into the online attacks on Aaron Reardon’s political rivals.|
Inadvertently, however, he left gaps in his strategy.
He’d sent the Washington State Patrol emails that demonstrated an interest in the early stages of the Reardon investigation. Those messages came from a particular electronic address with a distinct name.
That name can be traced to a company, a real one that is registered with the state. And state records say the company belongs to Reardon aide Kevin Hulten and a co-worker, Jon Rudicil.
What does their clandestine involvement in campaign capers say about leadership in the state’s third-largest county?
Before grappling with that question, let’s wander the maze.
|Video: Labyrinth of influence|
A story of vengeance
The journey starts in the pages of the classic Alexandre Dumas revenge novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
A theme of the book is that pursuit of vengeance transforms a person — not always for the better.
The story, first published in France in 1844, is about a young sailor, Edmond Dantes. On his wedding day, he is thrown into prison for crimes he did not commit.
After years behind bars, Dantes cleverly regains his freedom and uncovers a vast treasure. He uses this wealth to establish several false identities and patiently spends years punishing the corrupt prosecutor and others who conspired against him.
In a key scene, Dantes orchestrates the financial ruin of one enemy by passing himself off as a representative of an investment house called Thomson and French.
Some editions of the novel list the company’s name incorrectly as “Thomas and French.” The error is repeated in study guides and numerous online references.
|Thomas and French|
|• Incorporation papers|
Thomas and French
The company’s founders are listed as Hulten, Reardon’s legislative analyst, and Rudicil, Reardon’s executive assistant.
Incorporation papers filed with the Secretary of State list Hulten’s brother Kyle, and his Seattle law firm, inVigor Law Group, as the company’s registered agent. State records also show Kyle Hulten paid the online filing fee.
That same month, somebody registered an online domain called thomasandfrench.com. Its physical address is a Bellevue strip mall mailbox drop. Within days, a Thomas and French web page with a different online address was created through the easy-to-use Tumblr online hosting service.
The Thomas and French site purports to advertise “a family business,” although it is not clear what kind of business it is.
A visitor familiar with “The Count of Monte Cristo” might note that the site prominently features a quotation from the final pages of the Dumas novel. The Count muses how “all human wisdom is contained in these two words, ‘Wait and Hope.’”
|Related Tumblr sites|
|• Mid March in Paris|
High interest connections
Clues from the Thomas and French site point not only to Reardon’s office, but also to France.
The site lists links to about a dozen other Web pages. Some concern mainstream news, government or politics. Others promote information about Reardon. And one link is to “Mid March in Paris,” a Tumblr site with pictures, videos and words chronicling a trip Hulten made to France with his girlfriend in 2012. That Tumblr has since been password protected.
But two of the “Mid March” links send people to “County Confidential” and “Clowns at Midnight,” sites that focus solely on Reardon’s political fortunes — and on belittling those perceived to be in his way.
‘Out of control’
“County Confidential” cropped up on the Web during the 2011 election season, as Reardon, a Democrat, sought a third term. The site, which describes itself as a “citizen journalism project,” features content Hulten helped dig up in an effort to undermine Reardon’s opponent, Republican Mike Hope.
The site provides document downloads, press releases and news stories about efforts by Hulten’s associates to persuade state campaign regulators to investigate Hope. Also posted are records Hulten gathered about a March 2000 police stop in Mill Creek involving Hope, information that was used by Reardon’s campaign for mailers and ads attacking Hope’s character.
“Mike Hope is out of touch and out of control,” the ads said.
Attacking perceived threats
Even after Reardon won re-election, an anonymous online campaign continued against his adversaries.
A site called “Clowns at Midnight” surfaced on Tumblr in February 2012 — just as Reardon came under intense scrutiny concerning evidence of extramarital affairs and claims that he had used public resources in his campaign.
The “Clowns” site derides the Washington State Patrol investigation of Reardon’s business trips with a former girlfriend. It mixes in allusions to modern horror fiction, such as a quote from a horror story by Stephen King, about the terror of something lurking under the bed.
The site shares its name with an Australian novel about a man tormented by coulrophobia, a debilitating fear of clowns. The protagonist endures computer harassment and must cope with a labyrinth in his neighbor’s garden.
The site’s author attacks Tami Dutton, a county social worker who says she had a years-long affair with Reardon. The site also claims County Councilman Dave Somers had a personal vendetta when he alerted prosecutors to the potential misuse of public funds by Reardon. Somers went to prosecutors in October 2011 after Dutton told him she met with Reardon for hotel trysts while the executive was out of town on county business.
Additionally, the site features an annotated critique of The Herald’s “irresponsible” coverage of Reardon’s troubles. The document closely resembles a complaint Hulten sent to the newspaper.
The “Clowns at Midnight” Tumblr showcases Hulten’s demand that Gov. Chris Gregoire order an investigation of the State Patrol detectives who were working on the Reardon case.
Hulten’s complaint was posted to the site on Feb. 25, 2012, two days after he sent it to Gregoire. At the same time, detectives were attempting to interview Hulten regarding the Reardon case. Hulten complained the investigators were leaking information about their work. He told them he’d speak with them but didn’t keep the meetings. The detectives ultimately gave up trying to interview him.
“Clowns at Midnight” introduced yet another fictional character to the cast of Reardon defenders.
Calling himself “Lain Coubert,” the person began posting on Twitter and in comments attached to online news stories on The Seattle Weekly’s website and Edmonds Patch.com. He argued that the Reardon investigation was unfair and was being inaccurately reported in The Herald, The Seattle Times and on TV news.
“Lain Coubert” posts also appeared on “Clowns at Midnight,” where he urged readers to follow him on Twitter for updates on the Reardon controversy.
There is no registered voter in Snohomish County or anywhere else in Washington named Lain Coubert. If you are a fan of best-selling suspense novels, the name may ring a bell.
Lain Coubert is the creation of Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon for the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” series of romantic mysteries.
Introduced in the first book, “The Shadow of the Wind,” Coubert is a horribly disfigured man who pursues a vendetta rooted in a betrayal that plays out in Paris and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.
Later, the series incorporates “The Count of Monte Cristo” as a plot element, including a prison escape and an elaborate plan for revenge.
The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is an imaginary place, another labyrinth, this time beneath Barcelona. The series of mysteries has an interlocking design, which Ruiz Zafon describes also as a labyrinth. It takes on different appearances, depending upon where in the series a reader begins.
|• Washington State Patrol records request|
The State Patrol investigation of Reardon concluded in mid-June without charges being filed, although the probe did produce evidence supporting Dutton’s claims about an affair.
By then, Snohomish County officials were responding to their own records requests from “Edmond Thomas.” This time the emails came from a domain called Blancs-Manteaux.com. The writer claimed to represent an organization called Rue Des Blancs-Manteaux LLC.
Rue Des Blancs-Manteaux is a street in Paris, remembered in song as the place where people were guillotined during the French Revolution. The Internet domain for that name traces to the same mail drop in Bellevue used by ThomasandFrench.com.
The “Edmond Thomas” requests to Snohomish County sought information on nearly 20 people on the county payroll, including their government phone history, emails and calendars.
The requested records are similar to those demanded from Reardon during the State Patrol investigation.
The people named in the “Edmond Thomas” requests were a who’s who of county officials who cooperated with the patrol investigation. Among them were Somers, who referred Dutton’s original complaint to prosecutors; Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe, who asked the patrol to investigate Dutton’s claims; Roe’s wife, Lisa Paul, who’s a criminal deputy prosecutor with no obvious connection to the Reardon case; and others from Roe’s staff.
Another official targeted was Auditor Carolyn Weikel, whose husband, Gary Weikel, worked as the No. 2 ranking official early in Reardon’s tenure and is a strong critic of his former boss.
|• Anne Block Wikipedia entry|
Harassing a taxpayer
“Lain Coubert” resurfaced in August to attack Gold Bar political blogger Anne Block, a lawyer who has Reardon in her crosshairs.
At the time, Block was pursuing a recall vote against Reardon. On Aug. 9, her first recall request was tossed out by a judge who ruled she didn’t file the paperwork correctly.
That same day, she sent the county a public records request, seeking information about Hulten’s whereabouts during Reardon’s 2011 election, asking for data from the keycard he carries to gain entry to county buildings.
The next day, somebody with the screen name “L8incoub3rt” opened an account on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows users to collaboratively create content. “L8incoub3rt” almost immediately began work on an entry about Block, ultimately creating a report of more than 2,700 words, replete with nearly 30 online citations.
The listing was unflattering. Wikipedia editors demanded changes in the post from the outset, and after complaints from Block.
Site moderators ultimately decided it was an “attack” page against a private person and took it down.
They also banned “L8incoub3rt” after he began posing as a writer with a different screen name. Using both personas, the writer argued with moderators to keep the Block page posted on the site.
But L8incoub3rt’s foray onto Wikipedia wasn’t a total loss. On Aug. 21, he created a glowing Wikipedia biography about Reardon. It recounts the executive’s political victories, his college career and his accomplishments as a high school athlete. Absent is any mention of the patrol investigation, the extramarital affair, or the ongoing Public Disclosure Commission inquiry into his apparent use of public resources in political campaigns. Reardon’s Wikipedia entry remains on the site.