GOP sources: Politico skinny-dipping ‘scoop’ was likely Schweikert-on-Quayle primary attack

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Three different high-ranking Republican staffers on Capitol Hill have told The Daily Caller of a growing consensus that at least part of a Sunday article by Politico’s Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan was planted by Arizona Republican Rep. David Schweikert in order to damage his primary opponent, Rep. Ben Quayle.

Schweikert’s office denies the charge, but a campaign spokesperson would only say that the congressman never “gave” or “provided” the entire story to the Virginia-based news outlet. Quayle’s involvement in the saga, while embarrassing, was relatively minor.

The story itself contained significant inaccuracies pertaining to both an alleged FBI investigation and Quayle’s involvement in what became a one-day mini-scandal. Politico reported that several freshman GOP members of Congress on an official trip to Israel went on an alcohol-fueled swim in the Sea of Galilee.

The Politico story disclosed that Kansas Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder went skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee. Yoder has apologized.

Other GOP lawmakers and staffers, according to Politico, joined Yoder for the swim — among them Quayle, Florida Rep. Steve Southerland, New York Reps. Tom Reed and Michael Grimm, and California Rep. Jeff Denham. Politico reported that those details were confirmed by unnamed GOP sources.

Sherman and Bresnahan also charged that the FBI investigated the event. “The FBI looked into whether any inappropriate behavior occurred,” they wrote, “but the interviews do not appear to have resulted in any formal allegations of wrongdoing.”

Sherman, Bresnahan and Politico drove the story Monday, getting higher- and higher-ranking politicians to comment on the incident, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, all of whom criticized the congressmen involved. MSNBC featured the story on “Morning Joe,” where Mark Halperin slammed the GOP congressmen’s antics.

But late Monday, Ryan Reilly at the left-leaning publication Talking Points Memo discovered that there was no such FBI investigation, despite Politico’s reporting to the contrary.

“The FBI is indeed interested in a trip that House Republicans made to Israel last summer,” Reilly wrote. “But it’s not because Kansas Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder took his pants off and jumped into the Sea of Galilee after a night of drinking. Law enforcement sources — noting that skinny-dipping usually doesn’t fall under the FBI’s purview — pointed TPM to a New York Times story from earlier this month about a trip to Cyprus that Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) made following his August venture to Israel alongside several colleagues.”

The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times have also confirmed that the FBI was not investigating what happened that night, but was looking into Grimm’s financial disclosures. Grimm has never been charged in relation with those financial disclosures, and he has denied any wrongdoing.

Sherman and Bresnahan relied on a quote from the office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to support their reporting that the FBI investigated the Sea of Galilee skinny-dip.

“Last year, a staffer was contacted by the Bureau [FBI], which had several questions, the staffer answered those questions and that appears to have been the end of it,” Cantor deputy chief of staff Doug Heye told Politico.

Heye did not, however, discuss the purpose of the FBI’s involvement. And Sherman and Bresnahan stopped short of alleging that Heye’s statement confirmed their assertion about an FBI investigation. But late Tuesday morning, after The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Talking Points Memo criticized his article, Sherman tweeted that Heye’s comment did confirm that assertion.

When asked for details about any FBI probe of the swim party, Heye referred The Daily Caller to the original Politico article. Heye also refused to express support for Sherman’s characterization of his comments on Twitter.

Politico has not issued a correction; editors John Harris and Jim VandeHei have not responded to TheDC’s request for comment.

It appears Politico also inaccurately reported other details, including its allegation that Quayle was among the congressmen who participated in the late-night swim in the Sea of Galilee.

Quayle says he did go swimming “for about 30 seconds” because he “wanted to experience it [the religious experience] and get out because my wife said that she was tired.” Quayle’s wife, who was with him on the trip, was more than eight-months pregnant. She did not drink alcohol that night, and Quayle said he only had a single glass of wine.

When Quayle went into the water, he said he was “properly attired,” adding that he brought home a vial of water from the Sea of Galilee to baptize his daughter, Evie. “We did return to Arizona with some water from the Sea of Galilee to baptize Evie after she was born,” his wife, Tiffany Quayle, said in a statement.

The inaccurate portrayal of Quayle as an active participant in a drunken swim party has led many Republican insiders, including Quayle and his staffers, to believe Schweikert leaked the story to Politico and framed Quayle’s alleged involvement in an effort to boost his own chances in the primary.

The Aug. 28 primary will likely determine the winner of the Nov. 6 election. Democrats in Arizona’s newly-drawn Sixth District are not expected to field a strong opposition candidate to whichever Republican emerges victorious.

“There seems to be a general consensus that the story was leaked by Schweikert to help him in his primary against Quayle,” one high-ranking Capitol Hill GOP source told TheDC. “If that’s true, it’s unfortunate that he’s willing to pit his own re-election against the party.”

Another senior Hill GOP source said that “[w]here there’s smoke, there’s fire. And there definitely seems to be troubling indication that it’s coming from Schweikert.”

A third high-ranking GOP source said that the Politico article was “not anything logical or about the truth,” and it’s clear that Schweikert and his political allies leaked it to try to smear Quayle.

“They’re in a sprint until next Tuesday, and there’s a lot of evangelical voters who would probably be upset by things like this,” that source said. “All they have to do is maintain this for another week and Schweikert wins.”

Schweikert held an impromptu press availability with local media in Arizona the night the story broke. He used the briefing to attack Quayle, further fueling Capitol Hill speculation that he was the source. Schweikert said he was “disappointed, but not surprised [about this Politico story], given Congressman Quayle’s history.”

By that, Schweikert was referring to Quayle’s 2010 admission that he had written satirical stories under a pseudonym for an adult-themed website. Quayle’s admission at the time followed previous denials that he had founded the website — denials which Politico later presented as a false denial that he had written the stories.

Shortly after Politico posted the story, National Horizon, a super PAC backing Schweikert, used the controversy in political attacks. National Horizon was founded, and is run, by Schweikert’s former congressional office chief of staff and political campaign manager, Oliver Schwab. Schwab was Schweikert’s chief of staff at the time that Schweikert went with the congressional delegation to Israel.

A request to National Horizon for comment went unanswered.

Adding to the widespread speculation on Capitol Hill that Schweikert and his operatives planted the Politico story, Quayle went on offense on Monday and Tuesday, saying, “The real question here is why is Dave Schweikert spreading these malicious falsehoods, a week before our primary, if he has known about inappropriate behavior for over a year?”

“The mask is off and Dave Schweikert has revealed himself as exactly the low and dishonest career politician the public has come to loathe. Voters will see right through this deception and join Senator Kyl and Senator McCain in condemning Dishonest Dave for his sleazy and fraudulent campaign.”

The Politico coverage of alleged scandal — including the publication’s story on Quayle’s version of events — made no mention of Quayle’s accusation that Schweikert created the controversy. One of TheDC’s high-ranking Capitol Hill GOP sources notes, however, that “[a]ll of the other named members who were there were all Quayle supporters. The only people who are actually named are supporting Quayle, either publicly or behind-the-scenes.”

There were approximately 30 GOP lawmakers on the trip, including Schweikert.

Schweikert campaign spokesman Chris Baker denies that Schweikert, his congressional office or his campaign “provided” or “gave” this story to Politico. “No one from the Schweikert campaign, official office, or anyone associated with the Schweikert campaign gave this story to Politico,” Baker wrote in an email to TheDC. “Schweikert did not provide the story to Politico.”

When TheDC asked Baker if Schweikert or his staffers had anything to do with this story, if they knew when it was going to run, or if Schweikert’s team helped Politico put this piece together, he refused to answer.

Baker’s carefully worded denials leave open the possibility that Schweikert could have had a hand in the story’s development.

Schweikert himself skirted the question too, saying it’s “absurd” to believe that he’s the source because Politico is a “national newspaper.”

“How would we have [access to] that?” Schweikert said on a local news radio program.

But Schweikert had easy access to Politico’s Jake Sherman; photographs Sherman tweeted several months ago show the two hanging out together at a shooting range in Arizona.

According to local news outlets, Schweikert has said he didn’t personally witness anything that happened on the night in question, though he was on the trip. “Rather, he [Schweikert] simply cited the details of the Politico article,” CBS 5 in Phoenix reported.

Baker refused to answer when asked what Schweikert thinks Quayle did that was wrong. Baker also refused to answer if Schweikert will correct his accusations or apologize following the revelation of inaccuracies in the Politico story.

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Editor’s note: This article was updated after publication to reflect that Rep. Quayle never denied writing satirical stories for an adult-themed website. He did, however, deny an allegation that he founded the website.