A cyber-squatter from Baltimore with a nose for mischief has become something of a menace in a pair of statewide races in Vermont. Scott Loughrey has become a bit player in both the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in Vermont after buying up a series of domain names similar to official candidate sites and -- if politicians refused to buy back the name -- cross-linking them to opponents' pages or posting candidate parody sites.
"I hit the roof," said Kathie Summers, campaign manager for Vermont gubernatorial candidate Ruth Dwyer. Last week, Summers took a call from a supporter who tried to access the Dwyer2000 Web site with a dot-com rather than the proper dot-org suffix. The URL led directly into the cyber arms of her opponent: It opened the Web site of fellow Republican William Meub, whom she will face in a primary this September.
Summers immediately fingered Meub as the culprit and fired off a snide, accusatory e-mail. "Glad to see you bought one of our sites, hope it shows up on the campaign finance report." Meub campaign manager mounted a high horse and shot back: "I find your insinuation that Bill's campaign was somehow involved with what is going on with your Web site/domain name offensive and not productive. Ruth and you appear to be shooting from the hip without proper investigation ... I hope you get to the source of your problem."
It didn't take long for everyone to figure out that the source was Scott Loughrey, a Baltimore cybersquatter. But Summers still refuses to admit that she made a mistake. "We don't owe them an apology. We may not be able to find a paper trail to prove Bill [Meub] had anything to do with it, [but] it's easy to hide things. Since he is a fellow Republican, we have to give him benefit of doubt."
Last Monday night, Loughrey escalated his tactics by posting a Web page for Dwyer, that -- rather than redirecting her supporters -- informs them about some of her less-than-proud moments, like the time she accused Democratic Gov. Howard Dean of thuggish and illegal tactics. "The governor," she charged, "is very willing to threaten people, bribe people ... anything he can do to get a vote." When challenged, Dwyer failed to come up with any proof but refused to apologize.
Her critics note a similar lack of fair play in the quick accusations against Meub. According to Summers, the Dwyer campaign had known for months that Loughrey owned the site. When Summers first came on board, she and Dwyer discussed his offer to sell them the dot-com address and turned it down. "In a weak moment" of greed, said Loughrey, "I asked for $2,000." A local Vermont paper reported that after putting up his spoof site last week Dwyer was willing to pay up to $1,000 for the domain. Loughrey says he has not been contacted by the Dwyer campaign and has not decided whether he will sell.
But such moments may not be all that rare for Loughrey. Previously, he tried to sell the Wise2000 dot-com and dot-org domain names to Bob Wise, a candidate for governor in West Virginia. When Wise declined, Loughrey unsuccessfully hawked the names to Wise's opponent, and then put them up for auction on eBay.
Meanwhile, Loughrey redirected the Wise sites to those of his opponents. That was before Loughrey launched his own half-satirical, half-serious expose of Wise's PAC connections on the Wise2000.com domain. After the bogus Wise2000 Web site made the news, "I got calls from media asking 'How could I shake down this nice guy?'" says Loughrey. "Mainstream press will always report from a position of power that I am the cyber-squatter attacking aggrieved politicians and they are only too eager to defend the pols."
Despite his long-standing opposition to the corrupting role of money in politics, Loughrey admits he is squatting for dollars. "I did it because I thought I was going to make money," he says. "But if can't make money," he adds, "I will make a social statement."
Loughrey has purchased a variety of "candidate2000" domain names, but is coy about how many or whether he has managed to turn a profit. Meanwhile, he is having fun. "Hello, I'm the dirty rat who bought Backus2000.com and Backus2000.org," Loughrey e-mailed Vermont U.S. senatorial candidate Jan Backus. "I'm wondering if you would be interested in control over them at cost?" Loughrey said the $85 price for Backus reflected his sentiments that Backus was not as bad as the GOP incumbent, Sen. Jim Jeffords. But Backus wasn't impressed with the discount. Instead, she cried "extortion" and turned him down, as did fellow Democratic challenger Ed Flanagan.
There is a certain irony to Loughrey's targeting of Vermont. One of his complaints against politicians is their acceptance of out-of-state money and backing. In the same breath, he says he chose Vermont politicians' domain names "because they were available" and hopes "Vermonters won't be too upset" at the outside interference. The sites were available, in part, because Vermont's candidates for local and statewide office still rely more on door-to-door campaigning, parades and spaghetti suppers than the Internet to get out their message. They are subject to the country's strictest campaign-finance reform laws that place mandatory caps on both spending and contributions. So while the Bush for President campaign can afford to buy up such domain names as georgewbushbites.com and georgewbushsucks.org, just to keep them off the market, Vermont local pols rely on a modest and rather boring Web presence.
But failure to do so can be costly, as candidates are now finding out. Loughrey used one of those domains to create a phony Web page for Vermont Republican Sen. James Jeffords. The Jeffords2000.org site blasts the senator for taking contributions from oil, tobacco and anti-environmental PACs. Jeffords press secretary Heidi Mohlman did not dispute the factual content of the page but noted, presumably in Jeffords defense, that the senator "doesn't discriminate against anyone who wants to give him money."
As a U.S. senator, Jeffords is not affected by the state's campaign finance restrictions, which are directed at state office holders. He has both the resources and the clout to go after Loughrey, and most importantly, the will. His office believes that Loughrey may have violated the law and is currently "exploring options." Jeffords supported a bill passed by the Congress in 1999 that attempts to clamp down on cyber-squatting. Aimed mostly at commercial violations, it bans the bad-faith registration or trafficking in domain names identical or confusingly similar to a distinctive trademark. A judge could revoke a pirated domain name and award damages up to $100,000.
The bill, which relies largely on civil rather than criminal redress, also allows suits against people who register the domain name of a person "without that person's consent, with the specific intent to profit from such name by selling the domain name for financial gain to that person or any third party." The state attorney general's office is looking into whether it has jurisdiction. While Vermonters are not taking the free speech issues surrounding domain-name sales lightly, they are also enjoying a good giggle over the tempest in an e-pot.