Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hall Monitor Special: Who's behind the attacks on David Oh - and why?

City Council candidate David Oh has been accused of exaggerating his military record - but is it just a smear campaign to take Oh down ahead of the elections? We venture down the rabbit hole.

Hall Monitor Special: Who's behind the attacks on David Oh — and why?

Photo: Neal Santos

A few weeks ago, a certain flyer began to circulate Center City. On it was a picture of City Council At-Large candidate David Oh, as pictured on the cover of the Philadelphia Daily News. Above the picture of Oh on the flyer were the words "Special Forces Faker." Below and on the back of the flyer were various accusations that Oh has lied about his military career.

The flyer did not mention, however, who had printed it.

And if there was any doubt that someone ― some group, some campaign, some private party, someone ― is conducting a political smear campaign against David Oh, it evaporated the moment those flyers hit the sidewalk.

You've probably heard about the accusations levied recently against Oh regarding his representation of his military career. In August, the Daily News published the first of several pieces citing Oh's own campaign literature and his political supporters as describing him as having served in the Special Forces or as having been a Green Beret. Oh, who left his career as an assistant district attorney to enter the Army National Guard (he was also activated to serve in Operation Desert Storm but it ended before he was deployed), was never designated a "Green Beret" and never completed the training required to become a full-fledged Special Forces officer.

So Oh's a liar, right? Not so fast.

As Oh has since explained ― in two full-page advertisements, in endless posts in an online discussion forum for Special Forces officers, and in sundry quotes for every news outlet in town ― the apparent discrepancy is rather nuanced.

Oh was, in fact, designated 18-Alpha, or "Special Forces Officer," by his superiors. He was also assigned a green beret which he had full authority to wear during his time of service. It's true that Oh never completed a Special Forces training regimen that would have made him a "tabbed" Special Forces Officer — a distinction we now call "Green Beret" — but he has never said he did.

Not exactly the smoking gun you might have expected from recent coverage of his career or from the Daily News' decision to photoshop a green beret onto Oh (the very green beret the DN used comes up easily on a Google Images search), noting in fine print that the depiction was a "photo illustration," and prompting WHYY's Dave Davies to call the move a "cheap shot."

In fact, CP has found that a number of the allegations and narratives surrounding Oh are not what they seem. It is not clear that Oh misrepresented himself, much less lied. At least one of his chief attackers has a long-held grudge against him that appears to have a political basis. Despite lurid headlines about veterans criticizing Oh, he in fact enjoys the support of several major local veterans groups — several members of which call the attacks on Oh a "smear campaign." And the illegal flyers being circulated about him prove that a smear campaign is indeed underway, and that at least some of the attack against him is about one thing only: dirtying Oh's name thoroughly enough to defeat him at the polls next Tuesday. Who might want to do that? Plenty of folks.

To be sure: There's no question that Oh and his campaign have been sloppy — and perhaps misleading — when it comes to characterizing the extent of Oh's military qualifications. But whether this was a deliberate attempt to mislead the public or a simple lack of attention to highly nuanced military language is not obvious. Oh admits fault in not correcting these mistakes, and has apologized for that.

What is clear, though — clear as the conspicuous lack of attribution on the flyer being circulated ― is that someone is out to get Oh, and they're using illegal smear tactics to do it.

The question is who ― and why.

The Beef

A few weeks ago ―and a few weeks before next week's general election ― the Daily News reported that "a group of veterans" — going by the name of the Philadelphia Independent Veterans Association — "called on voters to reject David Oh … due to his misleading claims about being an Army Green Beret."

In fact, the "group of veterans" mentioned consisted of about a dozen people, only two of them named by the Daily News. One, retired Army Special Forces Colonel John Murphy, hailed from Cherry Hill, N.J.

And the other, Navy veteran Joe Eastman, has had it in for Oh for years — though exactly why is rather bewildering.

Oh and Eastman had known each other since Oh's 2007 campaign for City Council, which Eastman had supported: Eastman even appeared in a video touting Oh's virtues (of the six instances of Oh's apparently misspeaking detailed by the Daily News, three occurred in 2007 or earlier).

In early 2010, Oh invited Eastman to serve on the "Dinner Committee" for an awards banquet and fundraiser for the 82nd Airborne Association, a veterans' association of which Oh had just been elected chairman. Among the guests invited were a number of prominent political figures, both Democratic and Republican.

Suddenly, Eastman, for reasons still unclear, turned against the event and its organizers.

By various accounts, verified by emails reviewed by City Paper, Eastman began to accuse Oh and fellow dinner organizer Ken Wong of staging "nothing more than a Democratic pep rally," by inviting several Democratic candidates and, it would seem, by honoring two Democrat veterans.

Ken Wong, who was appointed under President George W. Bush to the White House initiative for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and who oversees several events that benefit veterans, including the Philadelphia Dragon Boat race (Wong is not himself a veteran), says he was baffled: He and Oh, he says, had invited plenty of Republicans and Democrats alike.

"We sent out invitations to everybody!" says Wong. "Mr. Eastman was actually telling people not to attend, not to support the 82nd Airborne function. I don't know what caused him to do that."

Indeed, Eastman in an email boasted having told 300 people not to attend the event, which helps raise funds to help veterans' families and support veteran causes.

To some members of the 82nd Airborne, it was Eastman ― not Oh ― who was playing politics.

"I called him and said, 'Why are you trying to sabotage our dinner,'" recalls Vietnam War veteran and member of the 82nd Airborne Association Steve Zalewski. "And he said, 'This is a fundraiser for David,' and I said, 'You're wrong.' … And that's when he became snippy."

Zalewski and Eastman exchanged a series of heated emails. In one, Zalewski called Eastman "a political smear man."

Eastman, who says that "if there's one person in the city who's been against David Oh ― it's me," doesn't dispute any of this.

"That's probably right," he agreed to various pieces of the story CP recited back to him. But he's vague when it comes to describing why, exactly, he was so upset. When pressed, his answer had little to do with Oh's integrity as a veteran.

"Look: I'm a Republican," Mr. Eastman told CP over the phone. "I stand for what Republicans stand for, and over the past couple years, I've come to believe that Mr. Oh does not embrace the Republican values or stand for the things I stand for as a Republican."

When CP pointed out that it sounded like Eastman's beef with Oh had more to do with politics than Oh's military career, Eastman answered, "That's a fair question: I am against David Oh for what I believe to be false claims about his military service."

Eastman denies having leaked the story to the Daily News or having anything to do with the fliers that were, he acknowledged, distributed at the press event he had organized.

"When I saw that in the Daily News I nearly spilled my coffee," comments Eastman. "Because I said to myself, 'Everyone's going to think it's me!'"

Outside Agitators

It was Eastman who organized a group of about a dozen veterans to stage a "press conference" outside City Hall and demand Oh's resignation. Certainly, the press showed up.

Reading the ensuing headlines ― "Vets Slam David Oh for misleading military claims," "Veterans protest City Council Candidate," "Vets rip candidate on Green Beret claim," etc. ― you might have thought the Philadelphia veteran community had come out in full force against Oh.

Not so: Those groups have, by and large, supported Oh in the wake of the allegations against him.

When allegations that Oh had mischaracterized his military career first appeared in the Daily News, Dan Bosak, who chaired the Philadelphia Chapter of the 82nd Airborne Association for 22 years before stepping down last year (to be replaced by Oh) acknowledges, "there were absolutely concerns" from fellow members about Oh.

"We talked with [Oh] and he was nice enough to bring in his documentation," says Bosak, and he and other members concluded that Oh had done nothing wrong. Indeed, "We gave him a vote of confidence just last week," by re-nominating Oh to chair the 80-odd-member organization again.

"I see no one even running against him. David's an outstanding guy. … [he's] done no wrong by us, we support him, and we'll be there on election day to support him."

"This," he adds, referring to the recent controversy over Oh, "is just a political attack."

Bosak says he's "never" heard of Eastman's group and has no idea why Eastman is attacking Oh.

"I never met [Eastman], and I don't care to meet him. All I know is he's got a vendetta against David Oh."

Another member of the 82nd, who asked that his name not be used, put it this way: "David's only sin is that he wasn't aggressive about explaining [his credentials] ― but it's a hard story to tell. … Back when I was in, guys assigned to Special Forces units wore green berets whether they were "Special Forces qualified" or not … so he could have been more careful."

"But to give a short answer, it was, in short, a bunch of horse shit."

Zalewski agrees: "A lot of the guys called and said, 'What's up with David Oh?'" he recalls. Zalewski, concerned himself over what he was reading, contacted an old army friend whose opinion he trusts ― and who reassured him that "that guy does not have to apologize to anybody."

"If [our] guys thought there was any credence to what was written [about Oh]," he adds, "they would have voted him out. No one whatsoever has tried [to do that]."

"It's funny," he reflects, "that Joe Eastman forms a group of 10 people, gives them a nice fancy name, while veterans from 10 different groups disagree with them. It seems he formed that group for one reason."

Indeed, the Facebook group for the Philadelphia Veterans Association contains — quite literally — almost nothing but attacks on David Oh, mostly posted by Eastman himself. The only post unrelated to bashing Oh that CP could find recently was an endorsement, by one Robert Allen Mansfield, for Republican Joe McColgan, who is running against Oh for City Council. Eastman "liked" the post.

Eastman was also to be seen standing alongside McColgan at a recent Council committee hearing. (Eastman declined over the phone to say whom he is supporting in the race.)

Eastman's isn't the only shadowy group of veterans to attack Oh: much of the brunt of the criticisms of Oh have come from the website and discussion forum "SocNet" or Special Operations Community Network, on which forum David Oh created an account to engage with his accusers, going so far as to provide his personal military record and draft, with the forum's input, a public apology. Unlike the 82nd Airborne Association, United Veterans Council, or other area veterans groups, SocNet is a discussion forum comprised mostly of anonymous users and in which proof of identify and military credentials are not required.

Whodunnit?

It was quotes from these (anonymous) users in fact, that helped flesh out the also-anonymous fliers that began circulating Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago.

The fliers have been passed out for several weeks, in some cases by people who appear to be homeless. Someone is funding the effort against Oh, and whoever it is is breaking the law.

Anonymous fliers smearing a candidate are part of a long, inglorious tradition of Philly politics. It's illegal, of course: state laws require that any group spending money to influence a campaign register as a political committee; and political fliers created by such groups must cite their funding. But that doesn't necessarily stop the odd interest group from trying.

In 2008, a political action committee tied to IBEW Local 98 — the powerful electricians union headed by union boss and city powerbroker John Dougherty — admitted responsibility for funding a series of anonymous fliers attacking mayoral candidates Michael Nutter and Bob Brady and agreed to pay a $10,000 fine.

Usually, though, tracking down the origin of such fliers is almost impossible. "The whodunnit thing with the fliers in Philadelphia politics is an ancient parlor game," is how political consultant Larry Ceisler puts it. "I know of at least one candidate who put out negative fliers about himself to get some sympathy."

The fliers calling Oh a "Special Forces Faker," and depicting him in the (photoshopped) image featured on the cover of the Daily News bear no attribution. Oh says he doesn't know who's behind them. All of Oh's opponents for City Council, when contacted, denied that their campaigns are responsible.

And it would be naïve to assume the pool of suspects is that limited: Oh, you see, has been in the crosshairs of various political forces for years now.

In 2007, Oh challenged Republican Jack Kelly for the at-large Republican seat — the establishment-chosen candidate for that seat. Oh, who had run without party support, and was therefore unbeholden to the powers-that-be, surprised everyone by nearly (and, some say, actually) beating Kelly. It was only in a subsequent re-count that the City's Board of Elections announced that Kelly had won.

This year, with a wide-open field for candidates, Oh came in first among Republicans in the city's primary election.

So just who has it in for Oh now? Potentially, just about everybody, and for one potential reason that takes us to the murky bottom of Philly politics: the presidency of City Council. The office is, after all, one of the least-understood, most-important "elections" —the Council president is elected by City Council members, that is, not by you — in the city's political landscape.

The president of City Council has tremendous power: the power, if he or she chose to use it, to stymie the mayor's agenda and control virtually every vote in the city's legislative body.

Currently, the contest for Council President is perceived as being between Council Majority Leader Marian B. Tasco and Fifth District Councilman Darrell Clarke. Tasco has been backed by Nutter, who supported candidates for City Council who refused to say they would not vote for a "DROP-enrolled Council president," (Tasco is enrolled in DROP; Clarke is not).

Candidates who said they would not vote for Tasco tended to receive the support of union boss John Dougherty's Local 98 as well as the support of former Mayor John Street, a political enemy of Nutter's and a mentor to Clarke.

Neither candidate for the Council Presidency has a clear lead over the other, and the vote will likely come down to a tiny few members of Council whose allegiance remains undecided: candidates like David Oh, who is not so far perceived as belonging to either camp.

"Usually the Republican Party in its own way picks its winner," explains consultant Ceisler. But that, he says, doesn't apply to Oh. "You layer that on top of the biggest change in City Council in years, layer that on top of the fact that these Republicans might be significant in picking the next Council president. And the success of Mayor Nutter's next term may be dependent on who will be the next City Council president."

"So if you see an aggressive campaign against David Oh, it's coming from a combination of those elements."

There's no question that the recent attacks on Oh's military career have hurt him. The Fraternal Order of Police dropped its endorsement of him. His decision to issue rapid and conspicuous apologies — not to mention a congenital lawyer's instinct for parsing words and splitting hairs, which can come off as equivocating — hasn't helped his image. At a recent WHYY debate, when host Dave Davies asked Oh about the Daily News articles, Oh seemed to lose the crowd as soon as he began explaining the difference between "18-Alpha" and "Special Forces tabbed." Never mind that it's crucial in evaluating what he has and hasn't said.

But the candidate has also picked up new support. Not long ago, the Philadelphia United Veterans Council endorsed him, in seeming defiance of the series published by the Daily News. Last week, a group of Korean War veterans endorsed him as well, as did Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez (who, it should be noted, seems so far to be in the Tasco-for-president camp, though she has voiced no such commitment).

Oh himself seems more than ready to move beyond the issue — if he can. "I'm aware of the mud-slinging against  me," he says simply. "I served my country honorably, and I'm focused on a campaign to improve Philadelphia."

"He's in for a tough fight," opines consultant Ceisler. "But that's what happens when you have an election with a lot of consequences."

Follow Hall Monitor Isaiah Thompson here and on Twitter.

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