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I Spy Campaign 2014: 'Gotcha' Politics or Business as Usual?

“If there are any Republican interns in the audience, I want them to get their spyglasses and video recorders ready. Mark Schauer will be at the podium in just a few minutes,” State House Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Mich.) said at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on July 27.

Michigan Democrats refuse to let go of the story of GOP interns wearing glasses equipped with sound and video recorders at Democratic candidate fundraisers.

Darren Littell, the communications director for the Michigan GOP, told MLive.com that Michigan Democrats should hold off throwing rocks from their glass house.

“I think Dems are being hypocritical with their (spygate) criticism. It’s clear they’re doing the exact same thing,” Littell said.

And he has proof.

Littell gave MLive.com two videos of Kevin Hrit, described as a “political operative,” telling a group of Democratic Party activists about the necessity of an “accountability project.”

Hrit, who was not employed by the Michigan Democratic Party at the time, can be heard on the video saying that it would help party candidates if the activists in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District could “get them (Republicans) on tape talking about the things they believe.”

“It’s no longer gotcha politics…it's literally just that the things they talk about behind closed doors are so radically different than the things that we talk about behind closed doors,” Hrit said on the video published by MLive.

Michigan Democrats said there is nothing wrong with the practice known as “tracking,” where operatives are sent to opponents’ public events to record every word a candidate says, looking for inside information and the occasional, embarrassing slip-up.

But Frank Houston, the chairman of the Oakland County Democratic Party in suburban Detroit, told The Detroit News the tracking incident that made national news in July was different because the Republicans snuck into a fundraiser inside a private home, using false names.

“What is new about this is they’re acting like they’re in Mission Impossible or James Bond or something and trying to do it on the fly. That’s the line that seems to be getting crossed here,” Houston said.

On the other side of the spy-aisle, John M. Howting, the deputy director of the Michigan Republican Party, could be the state GOP’s own Inspector Gadget.

Howting is shown on a video obtained by the Michigan Democratic Party, and broadcast by MSNBC July 22, wearing high-tech eyeglasses with which he is recording Michigan Democratic Party functions.

Josh Pugh, communications director for the Michigan Democratic Party, said Howting’s video recordings were left behind at a Democratic event in suburban Detroit, and include spy-training segments at Republican headquarters where young GOP operatives are shown learning the finer points of deception and using the glasses that contained video cameras.

The video also shows that it is not easy being a political spy. The Republican undercover agents are shown having trouble with their high-tech video recording glasses.

At one point, they left the camera rolling as they plotted ways to fool Democratic candidates, revealed their secret identities, and took repeated trips to various bathrooms.

The video was shot by the GOP operatives inside a private home at a fundraiser for Mark Schauer, the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate.

One of the operatives is seen telling a partner that one of the women at the party is “starting to creep her out” because she was asking how the undercover Republicans got into the fundraiser.

Pugh also said the raw footage for the first time links a Rick Snyder-Republican spy operation targeting Schauer and other Democrats to a Michigan GOP operative with ties to conservative activist James O’Keefe.

O’Keefe produced secretly recorded undercover audio and videotapes of meetings with officials in a variety of organizations, like ACORN and NPR.

Pugh said Howting, whose own history of dirty tricks caught the attention of The New York Times, has ties to O’Keefe, who was convicted four years ago of attempting to tamper with the phone lines of Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.

The New York Times reported that Howting once led a right-wing group, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, at Miami University of Ohio where he invited O’Keefe to speak and has participated in joint gotcha projects with him.

He was also on the staff of former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) during a time when some members of McCotter’s staff were connected to a fraud involving McCotter’s candidate petitions.

The NYT also reported that Howting -- using the name “Melvin Howting” -- once showed up at a Harlem community organization posing as a worker at a New Jersey environmental company interested in organizing a union as part of a political sting operation.

Howting constructed a website for the environmental company where he boasted of being a vice president who had attended Earlham College and a chief executive who had graduated from West Point with “highest distinction.” The paper reported that there were no records backing those claims up and that the entire setup was a scam.

While at Miami University of Ohio, Howting reportedly was accused by students there of slathering tanning oil on his face, trying to pass as a liberal Latino activist.

Pugh said in addition to Schauer and lieutenant governor candidate Lisa Brown, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson and various congressional, state House and Senate candidates were also targets of the bungled Republican spy operation.

An undercover Republican operative on one of the tapes, apparently posing as a Democrat, asks Johnson if they should vote in a contested August Republican primary in suburban Detroit.

Johnson is seen rejecting the idea on the tape. Instead he urges the fake Democrat to “play it straight” and tells him, “Let’s go win.”

“Rick Snyder and the Republicans may think they are 007 with all the spy gadgets, “ said Johnson. “But when you embarrass yourself with blown secrets and your dirty trickster’s previous antics attracted national attention, you’re more Maxwell Smart than James Bond.”

“It’s clear that Republican Gov. Snyder is getting desperate,” continued Johnson. “Snyder’s record of cutting our kids’ schools and raising taxes on seniors and families is catching up to him.”

The Republicans may have decided to cross that line — if there is a line — because of the way Schauer is coming on in a gubernatorial election the GOP had pretty much taken for granted.

Schauer, a former congressman whom most people in Michigan couldn’t pick out of a line-up of politicians, has narrowed the race to just three points, according to an EPIC-MRA poll released July 17, a poll with a four-point margin of error.

Whatever the reason, it is also clear that this form of political subterfuge won’t end any time soon if only because these spy glasses are so available and so darn affordable.

Google “video spy glasses” and you will find nearly 3 million results or listings including YouTube videos that offer instructions on how to use the glasses and reviews to help buys find the best. Most of the glasses retailed for less than $300.

Amazon listed a pair of 720 HD Spy Eyewear Sunglasses with hidden camera, DVR video, voice recorder and 5m pixel +8G Micro SD Card for a list price of $149, on sale for $54.35.

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)