Rep. Evans shakes up staff over Web-site `dirty trick'
 
 

                                                        By Cynthia Burton,
                                                          Peter Nicholas
                                                         and Monica Yant
                                                   INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
 

                             Philadelphia mayoral candidate Dwight Evans yesterday accepted the resignation of his
                             campaign manager and fired the deputy manager after learning that the deputy was linked
                             to a bogus Web site apparently intended to hurt a rival candidate.

                             Evans, a state representative from West Oak Lane, denounced the phony Web page as an
                             example of "dirty tricks," said he knew nothing about it until after it appeared, and said
                             he had apologized to the target of the ruse, John White Jr., a rival for the Democratic
                             nomination for mayor.

                  "I do not want this race to be about race," Evans said during a news conference in City Hall courtyard.

                  The Web page, which purported to be the official site of White's campaign, highlighted a remark made
                  by White in an interview with Al Dia, a Spanish-language weekly in Philadelphia. The quote reads:
                  "The black and the brown, if we unite, we're going to control this city."

                  White has said that the quote, drawn from a lengthy interview published Feb. 3, was substantially
                  accurate but did not convey his meaning, which was that blacks and Latinos could wield more political
                  clout if they worked together.

                  The fake site made the statement appear to be the credo of White's campaign. It appeared on numerous
                  pages within the site, in large letters. E-mail messages were sent to journalists, alerting them to the
                  site. Several rival candidates said the ruse appeared designed to hurt White by making him appear
                  threatening to white voters.

                  White called attention to the subterfuge Thursday, after the Daily News published an article that quoted
                  White's comment to Al Dia and described the page as the candidate's official site. Evans and White's
                  other rivals all disavowed any role in the prank.

                  Evans said yesterday he had learned that his deputy campaign manager, David J. Sirota, of Huntingdon
                  Valley, was "associated" with the person who registered the site with Internet service companies --
                  Robert J. Richman, 23, of Cambridge, Mass.

                  The two are friends who were classmates at Northwestern University and who share an affinity for
                  Web design. Sirota, owner of a Web design company, bills himself on his own page as a political
                  consultant and Web guru. He has designed sites for U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (D., Fla.), U.S. Rep. Joe
                  Hoeffel and other politicians.

                  Evans said he had fired Sirota for "overzealous behavior." He said he believed that Sirota had not
                  created the bogus page but had discussed it with Richman.

                  "I found out that they basically were talking to each other and one thing led up to another," Evans said
                  in an interview. "It's unclear to me what all the details are."

                  "I'm more than angry," he said. "I'm very angry about this. . . . That is not the kind of activity I will take
                  in my campaign."
                  Evans said his campaign manager, John T. "Jack" Fugett, offered his resignation unprompted.

                  "He chose to on his own and I accept," Evans said. "He chose because he felt he was responsible for
                  the person working under his supervision."

                  Sirota and Fugett, a Chestnut Hill businessman and Evans friend who managed the candidate's 1994 bid
                  for governor, both declined to comment.

                  Asked who would replace Fugett as campaign manager, Evans said he would decide over the next
                  several days.

                  Richman has denied any role in the Web site. In a phone interview Thursday night, he said he believed
                  that the site was set up by someone who stole his credit card after he left it in a bank in Cambridge
                  three weeks ago. He said he knew no one in Philadelphia politics and was not involved in any of the
                  mayoral campaigns.

                  Yesterday, a man who answered the door at Richman's Cambridge apartment said "I'm not talking" and
                  slammed the door.

                  Evans called White to apologize yesterday. White, at a campaign appearance in Chinatown last night,
                  said he had accepted the apology, but added: "I personally think he needs to apologize to the whole
                  city."

                  In a prepared statement issued earlier, White said that responsibility for the fake site lay with Evans.
                  "I believe that a candidate is singularly responsible for the ethics and atmosphere of his or her own
                  campaign," the statement said.

                  The site was registered to "Brock Landers," a fictitious character in the movie Boogie Nights. The
                  address listed was Richman's first-floor apartment near Harvard University. The bill for computer
                  storage for the page was paid with a Visa card issued to Richman.

                  After that information was published in The Inquirer yesterday, Sirota approached Fugett and told him
                  that he was friends with Richman. From 12:30 p.m. until shortly after 5, the two holed up in Fugett's
                  office in Center City and Fugett questioned Sirota about the bogus site. The two conferred with Evans
                  by phone and discussed what the candidate would say at his news conference.

                  Evans said that at one point Sirota apologized and that he replied: "You're not in this campaign."
                  Richman and Sirota's friendship dates to 1994, their freshman year at Northwestern. The two met while
                  living in the same dorm, Richman's mother, Judy Richman of Los Angeles, said yesterday.

                  "I know that they talk," she said.

                  Richman described her son as someone inclined to art rather than politics.

                  "He's very conscientious as to the rights and wrongs of things," she said. "He's highly ethical, to the
                  point where he would get upset if I would try to get a 10 percent discount."

                  As seniors at Northwestern, Robert Richman and Sirota lived in the same apartment building, said
                  Richman's former roommate and fraternity brother Eric Bricker.

                  Bricker said that when the two were sophomores, they worked together on a Web design company,
                  Locomotive Online Communications. Corporate records list Sirota as owner of the company.

                  "They're both very ambitious young gentlemen," Bricker said.
                  On an Internet biography posted at Northwestern's Web site, Sirota listed his computer alias as
                  "Locomotive." His nicknames included "webman," "crowbar," "politicaljunkee" and "dc-dave."
                  The two graduated from Northwestern last year. Sirota's degree was in journalism, Richman's in
                  speech.
                  Sirota, who is in his early 20s, grew up in Huntingdon Valley and volunteered for Marjorie
                  Margolies-Mezvinsky during her successful 1992 congressional campaign. In 1998, he was an intern at
                  the Chicago Tribune's online division. Sirota's resume says he has also been an intern for political
                  strategist James Carville.
                  Last August, he worked on Hoeffel's congressional campaign . Sirota created the campaign Web site
                  and provided technological know-how for an online news conference the candidate held Sept. 17.

                  Internet work was Sirota's "primary responsibility," said Jeffrey Stein, Hoeffel's campaign manager.
                  "He's very bright. He obviously did good work for us. He's got the good college enthusiasm still
                  running through him."
                  Reacting to the controversy yesterday, former City Council President John F. Street, a mayoral
                  contender, said: "Sometimes in politics people can want to win too badly, but there's no place for these
                  kind of tactics."

                  Mayor Rendell said the prank was an "unconscionable act" and a sign to candidates that "we've got to
                  cut this stuff out. This is not a campaign for dirty tricks."

                  Evans said he foresaw no damage to his candidacy and would remain in the race. "It only makes me
                  stronger," he said of the controversy. "It only makes me continue to move on."