Emails reveal Justice Dept. regularly enlists Media Matters to spin press

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Internal Department of Justice emails obtained by The Daily Caller show Attorney General Eric Holder’s communications staff has collaborated with the left-wing advocacy group Media Matters for America in an attempt to quell news stories about scandals plaguing Holder and America’s top law enforcement agency.

Dozens of pages of emails between DOJ Office of Public Affairs Director Tracy Schmaler and Media Matters staffers show Schmaler, Holder’s top press defender, working with Media Matters to attack reporters covering DOJ scandals. TheDC obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request. (RELATED: TheDC’s complete coverage of Media Matters)

Emails sent in September and November 2010 show Schmaler working with Media Matters staffer Jeremy Holden on attacking news coverage of the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation scandal.

Holden attacked former DOJ Civil Rights Division attorneys J. Christian Adams and Hans von Spakovsky on Sept. 20, 2010 for what he called an attempt “to reignite the phony New Black Panther Party scandal.”

Before Holden posted his article at 7:52 p.m., Schmaler sent him several emails with information helping him attack both former DOJ oficials.

“Here’s one Wolf letter,” read the subject of one email Schmaler sent Holden that contained no text. The email was likely a reference to Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, a member of Congress who led the Republican charge on the New Black Panther Party scandal involving alleged voter intimidation at a November 2008 polling place in Philadelphia.

In response, Holden told Schmaler that “The response to interog 38 is particularly helpful. Thanks!”

Interrogatory 38 was a reference to a question from Congress that the Justice Department answered, concerning the role of several senior officials in discussing litigation related to that voter intimidation case.

A follow-up email shows Schmaler sending Holden more information.

“[H]ere’s another one to Smith,” Schmaler wrote. “[I]t’s about perrelli contact with w. WH. helpful in that it makes clear perrelli didn’t have discussions w/ WH on the case (obviously confirming he knew of it) … but also illustrates [REDACTED] they’ve tried to throw up that won’t stick[.]”

Holden responded at 8:34 p.m. — three hours after Schmaler sent her first email at 5:34 — to say, “Post is live, FWIW [for what it’s worth]. Thanks again.”

Nearly two months later, on Nov. 18, 2010, Holden wrote a new blog post he described as an “EXCLUSIVE,” titled “Right-wing commission to vote on flawed New Black Panthers report.”

“The conservative-dominated U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will vote Friday on an interim report that omits critical evidence disproving allegations that the Obama administration refuses to enforce voting-rights laws against racial minorities, according to Media Matters’ analysis of a copy of the report we obtained,” Holden wrote in the Nov. 18 article.

Holden attacked Adams again, and Christopher Coates — another now-former DOJ attorney.

After Holden published that piece, Schmaler sent him an email titled “Great piece…” and continuing in the body of the message, “On USCCR investigation.'” One minute later, Holden responded, writing, “Thanks!”

At 9:50 a.m. on July 8, 2011, Media Matters’ Matt Gertz wrote to Schmaler asking for her help “debunking what I think is a conservative media myth about Operation Fast and Furious.” (SOURCE: DOJ’s anti-Gallup ‘whistleblower’ made bizarre work requests, said he was a ‘devout Marxist’)

Gertz told Schmaler that “Xochitl directed me to you as the person to talk to.” Gertz was referring to Xochitl Hinojosa, a DOJ spokeswoman and former Media Matters staffer.

“Several media outlets, including Fox News this morning, are claiming that Fast and Furious was paid for with stimulus dollars,” Gertz wrote to Schmaler. “My research suggests that this is not true, and I was hoping you’d be able to confirm that.”

Gertz added that he needed a response “by 1 p.m.” because he thought the issue was “likely to snowball if it isn’t stopped.”

In less than two hours, Schmaler responded with an answer from her “budget folks” in DOJ. “You’re right,” she told Gertz, before explaining why she thought so.

At 1:13 p.m., Gertz responded, writing, “Thanks again for your help, here’s the piece” and adding a link to his online article.

An email chain from Sept. 9, 2011, shows Gertz and Schmaler expressing concern over an upcoming Fox News segment on Fast and Furious.

“This is Vanderboegh, who broke the story in the first place and has contacts in the media and at [the House] Oversight [commission]. Any idea what it’s about?” Gertz wrote to Schmaler at 8:29 a.m. that day in an email that quoted conservative blogger Mike Vanderboegh’s website: “FOX Got ‘Em. Huge Gunwalker Story Breaking Later This Morning.”

At 9:19 a.m., Schmaler replied: “So far, no one’s got an idea … unless it’s something that’s already been out. Let’s stay in touch…”

Gertz responded at 9:25 a.m. with a guess that if it were something that had already been out, it would have been a story on Indiana gun sales.

Fox News played its tease shortly after of a segment promising new information on Fast and Furious, and at 10:18 a.m. Gertz sent the text of Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer’s tease to Schmaler.

“Also two weapons found at the scene where Border Agent Brian, uh, Terry was murdered linked to a botched federal gunrunning sting operation, and today the plot thickens once again,” Gertz quoted Hemmer as saying.

Eight minutes later, Schmaler wrote a terse “??” back to Gertz, likely indicating that she did not understand Hemmer’s statement.

Seconds after receiving Schmaler’s reply, Gertz responded, “No idea. Will let you know when the segment happens.”

Schmaler then praised Gertz for monitoring the situation: “Thanks Matt,” she replied.

In two subsequent emails, Gertz told the DOJ public affairs director what happened. The “[c]laim is [that] there was a third gun at the Terry murder scene that was covered up because it was procured by an FBI informant inside the Sinaloa cartel,” Gertz wrote to Schmaler in one message. The other email included the full text of Fox News reporter William LaJeunesse’s article on the matter.

In a Jan. 31, 2012, email chain titled “per our conversation,” Schmaler and Gertz are seen cooperating on an article attacking House oversight committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa. At 12:18 p.m. that day, Schmaler sent Gertz two paragraphs of text from Issa’s comments during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Dec. 8, 2011. Schmaler underlined a portion of the text in those paragraphs in which Issa discussed the differences between Fast and Furious and similar — but different in crucial respects — programs from the George W. Bush administration.

“The difference in the previous administration is there was coordination with the Mexican government,” Schmaler quoted Issa as saying in her email to Gertz. “They made a real effort under [Operation] Wide Receiver [in the George W. Bush administration] to pass off a small amount of weapons and track them. This program [Fast and Furious], just the opposite. Even knowing the drug cartels that were going to receive them, they simply allowed them to go to the stash house.”

Just hours after Schmaler sent Gertz that highlighted Issa quote, it appeared in a Media Matters article titled “Rep. Issa Ties Himself In Fast And Furious Knots.” Gertz wrote the piece for Media Matters Action Network’s “Political Correction” blog.

In his article, Gertz referenced a just-released Democratic House oversight committee staff report that he said concluded “there is no evidence that senior officials in the Obama Department of Justice authorized gunwalking in that case.”

Gertz chastised Issa, who had pointed out that morning on Fox News how DOJ and congressional Democrats were inconsistent about how Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer “was still a believer in Fast and Furious and programs like it” on Feb. 4, 2011.

Issa pointed out that that date was the same day the DOJ sent a letter to Sen. Chuck Grassley falsely denying gunwalking was going on — a letter the DOJ withdrew months later.

“Note Issa’s very slippery use of the phrase ‘Fast and Furious and programs like it,'” Gertz told his readers.

Schmaler reached out to Gertz on March 12, 2012 seemingly to suggest an article attacking Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips for his public comments about Operation Fast and Furious. At the time, Phillips was pressing GOP leadership to take action on the gunwalking scandal. During a Fox News interview, Phillips said Fast and Furious “should be investigated, but we also have to remember the program itself was a partisan program.”

“This was never a law enforcement sting, as you described it earlier. This was purely a political operation,” Phillips added during the Fox segment.

“You send the guns down to Mexico, therefore you support the political narrative that the Obama administration wanted supported; that all these American guns are flooding Mexico; that they’re the cause of the violence in Mexico and therefore we need draconian gun control laws here in America. So because the whole operation itself was political, yes, by all means Congress should be all over this.”

Schmaler obtained a transcript of Phillips’ whole broadcast segment and sent it to Gertz in an 11:55 a.m. email on March 12, asking, “You see this?”

“[C]ompletely false,” Schmaler wrote of Phillips’ allegation. “[W]ide receiver and Hernandez put this to a lie. There’s been lots of coverage on previous bush operations…”

“Thanks,” Gertz responded one minute later.

“Hernandez” was a reference to Fidel Hernandez, the subject of DOJ’s first — and failed — attempt to direct a “controlled delivery of weapons” across the Mexican border by arms traffickers for the purpose of tracking them to their eventual destination.

At 4:05 p.m. the same day Gertz and Schmaler were emailing about Judson Phillips, Media Matters’ Chris Brown wrote a blog entry attacking Phillips for his televised appearance.

“Not surprisingly, Phillips spent the interview promoting the right-wing conspiracy theory that Fast and Furious was a plot to promote gun control instead of a failed law enforcement investigation,” Brown wrote, adding a mention of what Schmaler had emailed: “Further, Phillips refers to Fast and Furious as a ‘partisan program’ despite the fact that Bush-era investigations featured similar ‘gun walking’ tactics as those used in Fast and Furious.”

Seven minutes after Brown’s blog post appeared online, Gertz sent the full text in an email to Schmaler with the headline, “FYI.”

Schmaler had a new request for Gertz on March 20, 2012. “Got time for a call?” the DOJ’s top communications official wrote to the progressive activist at 2:20 p.m.

Eleven minutes later, Gertz responded, writing, “Got blocks between 10:30 and noon and between 2 and 4.”

It’s unclear what they spoke about. But Gertz wrote significant amounts of material thereafter defending the slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and attacking the National Rifle Association and “stand your ground” laws.

Other than two blog posts he wrote in the days immediately before the email setting up a phone call with Schmaler, Gertz had not written much about the story of the black teenager shot by a Hispanic man in Sanford, Fla on Feb. 26. The DOJ had announced on March 19 that it was launching its own investigation into the Martin case.

Throughout the email exchanges TheDC obtained through the FOIA request are numerous examples of Gertz and other Media Matters staff sending the full text of Media Matters blog entries attacking the DOJ’s political opponents in the media.

Among others, Gertz sent Schmaler attack pieces he wrote about Townhall Magazine’s Katie Pavlich, who also authored a book on Operation Fast and Furious; Breitbart.com writers Joel Pollak and Ken Klukowski; Fox News Channel’s William LaJeunesse, Judge Andrew Napolitano, Megyn Kelly, Martha MacCallum, Bill Hemmer, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity; Sipsey Street Irregulars blogger Mike Vanderboegh; DirectorBlue blogger Doug Ross; National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy; and this reporter.

TheDC filed its FOIA request on Dec. 4, 2011 and the Department of Justice acknowledged receiving it a day later. The request, however, was not fulfilled until Aug. 30, 2012 — far outside the 20-business-day limit to fulfill a FOIA request under the law. TheDC was not given any notification of a time extension in the months this request sat before DOJ acted on it.

The DOJ’s own published guidelines for responding to FOIA requests state that “[u]nder the law, all federal agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days, unless there are ‘unusual circumstances.'” Those circumstances, the DOJ writes, include the need to collect records from field offices, a request involving a “voluminous” amount of records, and the need “to consult with another federal agency or other Department of Justice components that have a substantial interest in the responsive information.”

Neither Media Matters’ spokeswoman nor Schmaler replied to TheDC’s requests for comment.

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