Item: Political Tweets Investigated in Huntsville

By: Lisa Trow, Huntsville Item
By: Lisa Trow, Huntsville Item

Original Huntsville Item Story
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HUNTSVILLE — Tweets from fake Twitter accounts satirizing the Huntsville City Council have led to a Texas Rangers investigation after council members —including at least one incumbent running for re-election — complained to the Walker County District Attorney’s Office, the district attorney has confirmed.

Walker County District Attorney David Weeks acknowledged last week that at-large council member Keith Olson — who faces Sam Houston State University student Kendall Scudder in the Nov. 6 election — and additional council members had complained to his office about the Twitter accounts and that he in turn engaged the Texas Rangers to investigate.

Weeks said he turned the matter over to the Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety, to avoid a conflict of interest with local law enforcement.

“Since the allegations involve City Council, I did not want to put (the Huntsville Police Department) in the crosshairs by having them conduct the investigation. It is a political matter, so I felt the need to go outside and get an agency to investigate that does not have any local ties, which is why I did not take it to the sheriff's office,” Weeks said.

Weeks declined to cite what law the fake Twitter accounts might have violated.

“At this point it's a little early to say if there's any illegal activity. With this situation, you have to be careful because of the free speech rights,” Weeks said.

Twitter is an online microblogging site that allows users to post continual updates in bursts of up to 140 characters. A Twitter post is known as a “tweet.”

The Twitter accounts under investigation satirize council members' comments made during open meetings and their voting records but some also ridicule their targets' religious faith, personal histories and behavior, and suggest sexual tension between council members of the opposite sex.

The names of most of the accounts include language such as “phony” and “fake” and a line declaring that they are not affiliated with the actual elected officials they satirize. The accounts appear similar in style and scope to numerous fake Twitter accounts devoted to political satire, with names like “Rick Perry’s Hair,” “Veep Joe Biden,” “Unemployed Bush,” “Candidate Obama,” and “Paul Ryan (R-Fake).”

Eight of nine council members — Mayor Mac Woodward, mayor pro tem Don Johnson, Joe Emmett, James Fitch, Olson, Lydia Montgomery, Clyde Loll and Tish Humphrey — are the subjects of fake Twitter accounts. The accounts have names like “Fake Keith Olson,” “Phony Don Johnson” and “Smack Woodwork.” After Texas Rangers began investigating the accounts, another satirizing Weeks — “David Wee Peeks” — opened as well as an additional account satirizing Olson, “Olson's Mustache.”

The accounts with the most followers, or subscribers, are Phony Don Johnson and Fake Keith Olson with more than 100 each.

Most of the others have more than 30 followers. The avatars for most, but not all, of these accounts are photos of council members or, in the case of Olson’s Mustache, the councilman’s facial hair.

David Wee Peeks, with five followers, has as its avatar Chewbacca, the hairy, oversized companion of Han Solo in “Star Wars” movies.

After a spring and early summer of infrequent tweets, some accounts became active again after the probe began — and in time for council budget workshops and meetings.

For example, after a discussion on the city’s budget shortfall, in which the real Don Johnson blamed the financial practices of the city under previous council members, fake account Phony Don Johnson tweeted: “It was irresponsible to balance the budget with no tax increases, but the unbalanced budget (the current council passed) last year was the responsible thing to do.”

Fake account Smack Woodwork tweeted: “(By the way) @PhonyDonJohnson, (a member of one of) those ‘previous councils’ you are blaming sits right next to your sorry lying butt. #economicdevelopmentforwhobitch.” And: “Been on council ten years — never moved to increase tax rate. Never recommended it. NEVER.”

On the same issue, David Wee Peeks tweeted: “After the latest meeting and the comments of onlookers, I think it wise for me to indict the former council.”

The targets of the two most popular accounts said they have been offended by the tweets.

Johnson, running for re-election against retired FBI agent Joe Rodriquez, said he had not complained to Weeks about the accounts.

But he described himself as “frustrated” by them as they “vulgarly and vigorously” satirized him and his fellow council members.

“I think they’re an immature and immoral thing to do...but I don’t know what you can do about them,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what I did to deserve this.”

Olson said he considers the fake tweets to be a throwback to the negative politics of the past.

“I think it’s a regression to where our city is going. Our city is going in a positive direction, and I think this is a regression. I'm disappointed in it,” he said. “I think they are tasteless, they show poor judgment and poor character. (But) I can’t say whether they’re illegal.”

None of the other council members contacted by The Item said they had complained about the fake Twitter accounts.

Texas Rangers’ Probe

Katie Newman, a former Sam Houston State University student and unsuccessful candidate for Huntsville City Council, said she admitted to Texas Rangers that she started one of the fake Twitter accounts, “Not Fitch.” The account satirizes at-large council member Fitch, who is running unopposed on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Newman said she had no other motivation for initiating the account but to make political commentary.

“I’m interested in Huntsville politics and political satire. Fitch is an outstanding council member, and it had nothing to do with harming his character,” she said.

Newman said she made the admission to Ranger Ron Duff of Livingston after he exerted intense pressure on her during an interview conducted in Huntsville in August.

Duff did not respond to phone calls from The Item. An official with the Texas Rangers' Austin headquarters referred The Item to a Walker County-based DPS trooper, who also did not return phone calls.

Newman, 24, said Duff asked her why she “was interested in City Council,” why a young woman of her age would want to run for City Council, and if she thought the fake Twitter accounts satirizing council members were “nice.”

He also asked her what she thought “the punishment should be” for the administrators of the fake Twitter accounts.

“I said there shouldn’t be any punishment because they're not illegal, and that’s when he got very, very testy with me,” said Newman, who said Duff “threatened (her) several times with the Walker County grand jury” if she did not supply the names of others who administered fake Twitter accounts.

“Every account has ‘fake’ or ‘phony’ or ‘faux’ in it, and some of the handles are so outrageous that the account could not be perceived as anything but political satire. If the grand jury is going to indict me for something like this, they need to indict Tina Fey for making millions impersonating (former vice presidential candidate) Sarah Palin. Political satire has been going on for hundreds of years, and with modern technology and social networking there’s just new and creative ways to do it,” Newman said.

Fitch, who is also deputy chief of the University Police Department at SHSU, said he was not offended by the fake accounts and viewed them as part of being an elected official and a public figure.

“There’s got to be a certain amount of freedom of speech...I knew from the get-go that they were fake,” Fitch said of the accounts. “As much as I like to be a private person, as soon as I signed up for council I knew my business was going to be public.”

Harassment vs. Free Speech

Duff told Newman he was investigating the fake accounts under “Internet impersonation,” she said, also known as Internet harassment.

Passed by the Texas Legislature in 2009, Texas Penal Code 33.07 makes it a third degree felony to impersonate another person without his consent through email, social media networking sites and instant messaging programs with the intent to harm, threaten, intimidate or defraud. Violation of the statute is punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Bryan Cantrell, of the Huntsville law firm Cantrell, Ray and Barcus, said he firmly believes that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects Newman and the other administrators of these fake Twitter accounts.

Cantrell represents Newman, and his firm has represented The Huntsville Item in First Amendment and Open Records Act issues.

“The First Amendment is always a defense to statutes such as the one at issue here,” Cantrell said. “There is no actual intent to impersonate or use false pretenses to convince others that the author is actually the person being lampooned. No reasonable reader would believe that these sites are the actual individuals.”

The state’s Internet harassment law was not designed to punish political satire, he said.

“‘Harm’ is not simply to annoy or anger, but rather to monetarily or physically harm by actually pretending to be an individual whom you are not, as in getting a credit card in their name, getting someone to come to a fake meeting to frighten them, and the like,” Cantrell said.

But Olson told The Item last week he considers the investigation into the fake accounts to be serious business.

Olson said that subpoenas had been issued to recover the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses associated with them.

An IP address is a numeric code given to a computer connected to the Internet.

Olson said he suspects SHSU students and members of the Student Government Association run some of the accounts, and if IP addresses link use of the accounts to SHSU computers, he intends to pressure SHSU President Dr. Dana Gibson to punish, even expel the students involved.

“I’m going to hold Dana Gibson's feet to the fire to do the right thing,” he said.

Gibson, however, “is unaware of allegations that Sam Houston State students are engaged in the misuse of Twitter accounts for political purposes using university computers and servers,” and “has heard nothing whatsoever regarding any type of investigation by law enforcement officials,” SHSU spokeswoman Julia May said this week.

Weeks would not comment about whether subpoenas had been issued for IP addresses.

“If I reveal information about an ongoing investigation that would violate the secrecy of the grand jury,” Weeks said.

Twitter did not respond to The Item’s requests for confirmation of the subpoena by press time.

But in a follow-up conversation with The Item on Friday, Oct. 5, Olson denied having signed a formal complaint with the Walker County District Attorney's Office or having any knowledge that subpoenas for IP addresses had been issued. He said any comments he made with respect to an ongoing investigation were part of a private conversation he was having with the managing editor at Item offices.

“I’d rather stay out of it,” Olson said Oct. 5. “It’s the wrong thing for me to answer because someone could accuse me of electioneering...You’ll get me into a big fight over freedom of speech, and that’s a lose-lose deal for everyone.”

Scudder, Olson’s opponent and chief of staff for the Student Government Association at SHSU, said he did not know who was responsible the anonymous political tweets but that he himself had been the subject of fake Twitter accounts.

“I don’t know whose running all of these accounts, but it’s what happens when you put your name out in the public,” he said.


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