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Security beefs up early in ’08 campaigns

Times Staff Writer

Several top-tier presidential candidates in both parties have spent heavily on private security firms in the early months of the 2008 race, and their reliance on bodyguards, security consultants and even private investigators has led some campaigns into uncharted territory.

A Maryland security firm was paid more than $380,000 by the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and provided bodyguards and intelligence for three months, until Obama was assigned Secret Service protection in May.

Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) -- the only presidential candidates under federal protection -- have each spent more on private security than any other candidate. Two Republicans, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have also had extensive private protection.

Such moves to tighten security have led to staffing and spending decisions that some campaigns later reversed or revised.

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Despite her record as a gun control advocate, Clinton’s campaign headquarters is protected by a security consortium that carried online advertising for assault weapons and sniper training.

Earlier this year, Giuliani had bodyguards paid by his private consulting firm -- an expense normally considered a campaign’s responsibility. A Romney aide resigned after New Hampshire authorities began investigating his alleged abuses of his security role on the campaign trail.

The security presence on the campaign trail is “more, and starting earlier, than I’ve ever seen it,” said Joseph J. Funk, a former Secret Service agent who heads Global Security Services, the Maryland firm hired to protect Obama from February to May.

Clinton has paid more than $40,000 to private security operations in Virginia and California. Romney has spent at least $15,000 on protection from a Michigan security firm. And Giuliani’s bodyguards are expected to add considerably to his costs now that they are being shouldered by his campaign.

The use of private security has become a stopgap in the period before Secret Service protection begins for candidates who survive the early stage of campaigning. Those designations are expected later this year, security experts said.

“Some candidates are going to take their chances out there, but in this day and age, some are going to want to be protected before the Secret Service makes their decision,” said Joseph Russo, a former Secret Service agent who handles executive protection for New York-based T&M; Protection Resources.

The Secret Service is bracing for an unprecedented strain on its own resources.

The agency plans to borrow as many as 2,000 federal officers to cover the numerous presidential candidates, budgeting more than $110 million for their protection. In the 2004 election cycle, the Secret Service spent $65 million.

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Traditionally, candidates have forgone armed bodyguards and mingled with people, relying on unarmed traveling staffers known as “body men” to keep a lookout, and on local law enforcement to handle traffic and crowds.

And some candidates still do. But others are beefing up security to match the driven pace of the campaign and early interest by voters.

Even before the Department of Homeland Security assigned him Secret Service coverage in May, Obama had strong reasons for hiring private bodyguards.

His rallies attracted a crush of supporters, and as early as January, Obama had become the target of taunts and even threatening comments on the Web.

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Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton declined to discuss security arrangements. But Devin Burghart, who monitors extremist websites for the Center for New Community in Chicago, said there was a “spike in chatter” about Obama at the start of the year. The candidate was the subject of derogatory comments on the Stormfront White Nationalist discussion board, where some postings mused guardedly about violence.

Much of it is “locker room talk,” said Funk, the head of the firm that used to guard Obama. “But you have to keep on top of it.”

Clinton has had Secret Service protection since her husband’s first presidential run, in 1992. It was boosted in February to handle the crowds she draws. At the Iowa State Fair recently, Clinton maneuvered through the Des Moines fairgrounds behind a moving wedge of Secret Service agents.

Despite her federal protection, Clinton paid $16,400 earlier this year to a Mira Loma firm, Xpert Private Security, for what campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson described as “security at a fundraising event.”

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Clinton made several fundraising forays into Southern California between February and April, when Xpert’s services were used.

At-Risk Protection & Investigations, a Virginia firm that the Clinton campaign paid nearly $22,000, is providing security at the campaign’s headquarters in Arlington, Va.

At-Risk is part of a trio of security companies under linked ownership whose weapon sales clearinghouse, Tactical Solutions Group , is owned by one of At-Risk’s owners, James Roncal. Tactical Solutions advertises assault rifles, pistols and other weaponry and paramilitary gear on a website affiliated with At-Risk.

Roncal and fellow At-Risk owner Chuck Tobin did not reply to repeated phone calls for comment. An At-Risk staffer who responded to one call said the weapons were sold only to “military and law enforcement.”

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Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a national gun control advocacy group, questioned Clinton’s use of the firm. He described her as “reliable as you can be” in her support of gun control.

Tactical’s site advertises handguns and shotguns “that have no restricted law enforcement use,” Sugarmann said. He also questioned the “basic sniper” training that was being offered to the “general public” by Adrenalin Proving Grounds, another firm affiliated with At-Risk’s website.

“Essentially, the campaign has been hiring this group to protect them against the very people they could be training,” Sugarmann said.

Soon after The Times questioned the Clinton campaign about its employment of At-Risk, the requirements to take Adrenalin’s “basic sniper” training were abruptly tightened on its website, limiting the course only to “military, law enforcement and security.”

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The change doesn’t satisfy Sugarmann. “Security people,” he said, could be “just about anybody with a gun and a badge.”

Wolfson said the Clinton campaign would continue the relationship, citing At-Risk’s work with “law enforcement, military and security only.”

At the Romney campaign, spokesman Kevin Madden, would not discuss his campaign’s use of the Michigan security firm.

Madden also would not talk about Jay Garrity, who resigned as director of operations last month after allegations surfaced that he had acted as a security official without the authority to do so.

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Reports said that Garrity -- who had no security credentials -- impersonated a state trooper in Massachusetts, and that in New Hampshire he had pulled over a car driven by a reporter who was following Romney’s motorcade. Massachusetts and New Hampshire officials launched investigations into Garrity’s activities.

Giuliani has been protected during campaign appearances by a security team mostly made up of former New York police. Their expenses had been covered by Giuliani’s consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, until June 18, when officials decided to begin paying them through the campaign.

A Giuliani campaign official, who declined to be identified because the campaign does not publicly discuss security arrangements, said Giuliani’s consulting firm provided protection through mid-June because Giuliani was still performing corporate duties.

“When it became clear the campaign was taking up 90% of his time, the decision was made to shift [the costs] to the campaign mode,” the official said. There are no plans to reimburse Giuliani’s firm for the earlier work, the official said.

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Federal Election Commission spokesman George Smaragdis said that he could not comment directly on the matter, but that no rival campaign had filed a complaint.

Several people familiar with FEC policy said that the situation fell short of an illegal corporate campaign contribution, and that the FEC had not closely policed security expenditures. As a general rule, they said, such expenses should be picked up by the campaign.

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steve.braun@latimes.com

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