In 2014, the national Republican Party was confident that it could defeat a Democratic congressman from San Diego.
Registration in the 52nd District is closely split. The incumbent, Scott Peters, an environmental lawyer and former City Council member, was in his first term after narrowly defeating the Republican incumbent, Brian Bilbray, in 2012.
The GOP challenger in 2014 was former Councilman Carl DeMaio, who enjoyed high name recognition through his hard-charging style and his pledge to “fix Congress first” by making it more efficient and responsive to taxpayers.
But the final weeks of the campaign focused to a large degree on allegations made by a former DeMaio staff member that the candidate sexually harassed him. DeMaio's campaign seemingly never recovered, and he later blamed his defeat on the charges.
On Friday, the ex-staffer admitted in federal court that he lied when he claimed to have gotten an anonymous email threatening that he would never work again in politics if he revealed that he had been sexually harassed by DeMaio.
Todd Bosnich, 29, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of obstruction of justice by lying to the FBI about the email.
During the campaign, Bosnich had told reporters that he was ''positive” that the email came from DeMaio or someone close to him. He told federal investigators that DeMaio would often send emails and Twitter messages “using alias accounts.”
But in his guilty plea, Bosnich admitted that he sent the email himself through a dummy Yahoo account and then took the email to the Peters campaign, which turned it over to the San Diego Police Department.
Bosnich's actions “had the potential to affect a national election,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Phil Halpern. “Mr. Bosnich, for whatever reason, had a great deal of hostility and personal animus toward Mr. DeMaio. As a result of his feeling aggrieved, Bosnich wanted to get back at Mr. DeMaio.”
A plea bargain signed by Bosnich and federal prosecutors states that the email was meant to support Bosnich's allegation that DeMaio had touched him inappropriately and masturbated in front of him.
Bosnich claimed he left as the campaign's policy director because of DeMaio's alleged sexual misconduct and that DeMaio had offered him $50,000 to keep quiet.
After the allegations were made public, DeMaio said Bosnich had been fired after sending out an inaccurate and plagiarized piece of campaign literature. DeMaio denied any sexual misconduct or offering to buy Bosnich's silence.
The federal investigation that resulted in the obstruction of justice charge did not involve determining whether the sexual allegations were factual.
Bosnich's attorney, Frank Vecchione, said that his client “is accepting responsibility and wants to move on with his life.”
The race to represent the 52nd District, which includes a northern slice of San Diego and the cities of Poway and Coronado, was costly and nasty.
Peters, 56, stressed DeMaio's reputation for divisiveness and blasted him as a tea party follower; DeMaio said Peters was too liberal for San Diego and had proven ineffective in Congress. Peters won by a margin of 3.2%.
DeMaio, 40, who lost a race for mayor in 2012, is now a radio talk-show host in San Diego. He is also attempting to lead a statewide campaign in favor of reforming pensions for public employees, his signature issue while serving on the City Council.
After Bosnich pleaded guilty, DeMaio issued a statement that said that “Bosnich's lies were incredibly painful, smeared my reputation and derailed our congressional campaign.... I also want to thank the thousands of supporters who stood by me and saw this disgusting smear for what it was.”
Peters, DeMaio said, “shares responsibility for promoting Bosnich's smears and lies for political gain.”
In response, Peters said, “Someone came to us alleging sexual harassment by Mr. DeMaio; we took everything to the police and they thanked us for it. [DeMaio] was accused by two people from his own operation. He's the one who needs to take some responsibility.” Peters was citing a second sexual misconduct allegation by a former staff member that was made two days before the election.
Bosnich could face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced Aug. 31. As part of the plea bargain, the U.S. attorney's office has agreed not to recommend that the judge sentence Bosnich to prison.
Richard Grenell, media advisor to the DeMaio campaign, criticized the media, including the Los Angeles Times and CNN, for reporting on the allegations: “These same reporters should now hold Team Peters accountable for their dirty tricks or risk encouraging more ugly politics because a campaign gets away with it.”
Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, called the incident “another tawdry chapter in San Diego politics. Sometimes I think this town is trying out for a recurring role on ‘Scandal,'” the television series about hardball politicking in Washington.
The Peters campaign “tarnished itself by becoming part of the narrative for unproven allegations,” Luna said. But he doubted that the allegations cost DeMaio the election.
“In our polarized elections, it takes a lot more than allegations and innuendo to get someone not to vote for their side,” he said.