six o’clock on the evening of December 19, 2008, a man standing
outside his home in Lake Township, Ohio heard the whine of an engine
in the sky above him.
two red lights broke through the low clouds, heading almost directly
toward the ground. It was a light aircraft, and for a second, as
it descended below the tree line, the man thought it would climb
back up. Instead, there was a terrible thud, and the sky turned
orange. When the fire crews arrived, they found the burning wreckage
of a Piper Saratoga strewn across a vacant lot. The plane had narrowly
missed a house, but the explosion was so intense that the home’s
plastic siding was on fire. So was the grass. The pilot had been
thrown from the plane and died instantly. Body parts and pieces
of twisted metal were scattered everywhere. A prayer book lay open
on the ground, its pages on fire.
The crash would
have remained a private tragedy confined to the pages of the local
press and the hearts of the pilot’s widow and four children,
but within days the blogosphere was abuzz with rumors and conspiracy
theories: The plane, it was said, had been sabotaged and the pilot
murdered to cover up the GOP’s alleged theft of the Ohio vote
in the 2004 presidential election. At the center of this plot was
the Saratoga’s pilot, a prodigiously gifted IT expert named
Michael Connell, whose altar boy charm and technical brilliance
had made him the computer whiz of choice for the Republican Party.
Left-wing Web sites openly referred to Connell as “Bush’s
vote rigger” and claimed that his fingerprints were on all
the most controversial elections in recent history. There were dark
whispers of electronic pulses or sniper fire being used to bring
down the plane – a black ops attack designed to keep him from
testifying against his former cronies. Right-wing bloggers and talk
show hosts derided such claims as the twisted delusions of liberal
nut jobs and tinfoil hatters. The mainstream press sat on its hands.
But while the
rumors, innuendos, and allegations continue to swirl through the
ether, evidence has recently emerged that suggests the Ohio vote
may have been hacked, and that Connell was involved.
Born in 1963
in Peoria, Illinois into a large Irish-American family, Michael
Connell was a lifelong Republican and a devout Roman Catholic who
went to Mass every day and wore a wristband saying what would jesus
do? What Connell did was realize the potential of the Internet to
shape politics. While still in his 20s, he worked as finance director
for Republican Congressman Jim Leach, and as director of voter programs
for Senator Dan Coats of Indiana. In 1988 Connell developed a voter
contact database for George H. W. Bush, thus inaugurating a long
association with the Bush family: Connell worked on Jeb’s gubernatorial
campaign in Florida in 1998; two years later he was the chief architect
of George W. Bush’s Web site as Dubya launched his bid for
the White House.
But it was
while serving as tech guru to Karl Rove that Connell developed his
deepest and perhaps most problematic professional relationship.
Recruited in the late ’80s, Connell became Rove’s most
trusted cyberlieutenant: a Web wizard who could turn portals into
power and who would gain access to the very heights of American
politics by the time he reached 30 years old. Connell’s two
Ohio-based companies, New Media Communications and GovTech, became
virtual research and development labs for the Republican Party,
building and managing Web sites and e-mail accounts for both Presidents
Bush and a long list of leading Republicans. GovTech also designed
and managed numerous Congressional IT systems, including those for
the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, putting Connell
“behind the fire wall” of some of the most sensitive government
Web sites from the safety of the Bush White House.
was known as the GOP’s Mister Fix-It,” says Stephen Spoonamore,
an IT security expert and friend of Connell’s. “He built
really intelligent tools that allowed people who wanted to win elections
do a better job organizing their data.” But aside from his
more legitimate business, Connell was no stranger to the darker
side of American politics. He was forced to resign from Senator
Coats’ campaign for his involvement in ethical violations.
Connell’s was also the hand behind the Web site for the notorious
Swift Boat Veterans’ for Truth smear campaign against John
Kerry and GWB43.com, the secret e-mail account used by Rove and
dozens of other White House staffers.
Just six weeks
before his death, Connell had given a deposition in an Ohio lawsuit
that accused Rove, Bush, and Co. of something far more serious than
merely scrubbing e-mails: the theft of the 2004 Ohio vote. “This
is the biggest scandal in our history,” says Mark Crispin Miller,
a professor at New York University who has written extensively about
electronic voter fraud. “Watergate grew out of a paranoid attempt
to disable the opposition. But Ohio was exponentially different.
We’re talking about a systematic, centralized attempt to rig
the voting system.”
to try to bring a racketeering claim against Rove under Ohio law,”
says Cliff Arnebeck, the attorney who brought the suit, a broad-shouldered
man with a Senatorial air dressed in a blue blazer. “We detected
a pattern of criminal activity, and we identified Connell as a key
witness, as the implementer for Rove.”
By any calculation,
the Ohio 2004 election was a black day for American democracy. Lou
Harris, known as the “father of modern political polling,”
and a man not given to hyperbole, called it “as dirty an election
as America has ever seen.” All the exit polls suggested Ohio
would go to Kerry. But when the vote was counted George Bush had
won by 132,685 votes, adding Ohio’s crucial 20 Electoral College
votes to his tally. And putting him, not Kerry, into the White House.
It has since been alleged that at several points on election night,
the Ohio secretary of state’s official Web site, which was
responsible for reporting the results, was being hosted by a server
in a basement in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
secretary of state in 2004 was a fiercely partisan Christian named
Ken Blackwell. Blackwell had hired a company called GDC Limited
to run the IT systems, which had subcontracted the job to Michael
Connell’s company, GovTech. Connell had in turn sub-contracted
SMARTech, an IT firm based in Chattanooga, to act, it was claimed,
as a backup server.
at the URLs on the Web site, we discovered that there were three
points on election night when SMARTech’s computers took over
from the secretary of state,” says Arnebeck. “It is during
that period that we believe votes were manipulated.”
jargon it is known as a man-in-the-middle attack.
time I didn’t know who SMARTech were,” says IT expert
Stephen Spoonamore, opening a file on his computer showing the Internet
architecture map of the 2004 Ohio election. He points to a red box
in the bottom right-hand corner showing SMARTech’s server.
I found out: They host Rove’s e-mails. They host the RNC’s
Web site. They host George Bush’s Web site.” His voice
rises in disbelief.
‘Holy s__t, this is a man-in-the-middle attack! These guys
have programmed the state’s computers to talk to a company
with ties to the Republican Party.’ It’s brilliant.”
With his wiry
hair and designer glasses, Spoonamore looks like a character in
a Tim Burton movie. A lifelong Republican, he is also one of the
world’s acknowledged experts on cybersecurity, with a résumé
that includes work for the U.S. armed forces and the FBI. In his
spare time he has devoted thousands of hours to investigating cyberfraud
in American elections. “I know I sound crazy when I talk about
this stuff. No one wants to believe it. They say, ‘No one would
steal an election.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, they would. And that’s
exactly what they did.’ ”
believes that while Michael Connell may have facilitated electoral
fraud, he was really just a tool of more powerful forces. “Mike
has been called the Forrest Gump of GOP IT operations,” he
says. “And I think there’s a truth to that. I think he
was a good guy surrounded by wolves. He was always going to be the
The two men
had gotten to know each other at Spoonamore’s Washington, D.C.
offices in late 2005. “The two of us hit it off,” recalls
Spoonamore. “We were the same age, the same generation. We
had a lot of friends in common.” At the end of the meeting,
Connell broached a delicate topic. “Mike asked me, ‘How
easy is it to destroy all records of e-mail?’ ” recalls
Spoonamore. “He sort of gestured toward the White House and
said, ‘Because I have clients down the street who are working
on that problem.’ And I stepped back and said, ‘If you
are talking about White House e-mail destruction, I want nothing
to do with it.’ ”
A year later,
at an IT conference in London, Spoonamore confronted the pro-life
Connell about the Ohio election: “He said, ‘I’m afraid
that in my zeal to save the babies, the system I built may have
been abused.’ ”
later, in the back of a cab heading toward the airport, Spoonamore
asked Connell if he would be willing to talk to a Congressional
judiciary committee about what he knew. “I actually took Mike’s
hand and said, ‘If I can arrange for a private meeting for
you to sit down with the committee and explain what you think may
have happened in 2004 and how your systems may have been abused,
will you do it?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ ”
did talk to the judiciary committee. But in the months leading up
to his death he was under intense pressure. In an attempt to extricate
himself from the world of politics, he had sold two of his businesses,
including GovTech. Throughout the fall his plane was being tracked
by Arnebeck and his associates so they could serve him with a subpoena.
Connell sought refuge from the maelstrom in his deep Catholic faith.
He took to wearing a scapular, two squares of cloth with religious
images favored by devout Catholics, under his shirt. He went to
Mass twice a day and became more directly involved with the pro-life
movement, spending weekends standing outside abortion clinics. He
traveled to Burma and Thailand to work with religious dissidents
and started a Catholic charity in El Salvador.
October 8, 2008, Connell was served with his subpoena at College
Park Airfield outside Washington, D.C. Seven weeks later his Piper
Saratoga would fall from the sky.