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Patt Morrison asks: Opposition researcher Alan Huffman on the dirty truths even social media can't dig up

Patt Morrison asks: Opposition researcher Alan Huffman on the dirty truths even social media can't dig up
The United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (Danita Delimont / Getty)

Scandals have cut short many a political career. In 1998, as Congress was deciding whether to impeach President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky matter,  Louisiana Republican Bob Livingston — who was just about to become speaker of the house —  acknowledged that he had had an extramarital affair.  And he didn't take the job.  Usually before it gets that far, Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian are on the job. They're a pair of oppo research guys — opposition research, hired by candidates and would-be candidates to look privately for the kind of stuff politicians would not want to become public. Sometimes they research the other guy. Sometimes they research their own guy. Either way, it's all about finding real evidence, which is even more important in the fog of social media. They wrote a book about it —  "We're With Nobody" —  and Huffman explains how digging for dirt can actually clean up democracy.

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A political campaign is an ecosystem. What is the niche, what's the function of opposition research?

It's basically to force the truth out into the open —  that's the short answer. You get a lot of things thrown out there, particularly in the age of social media. And our job is to define the issues and document them.

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Now in the age of social media you would think that it's all out there.

It is all out there — some of it is way out there! The thing about social media is that in some ways it has dulled people to the truth, and the facts are often perverted. You read an article on social media and maybe it's based on documentation, and maybe it's not.

So anyone can say anything about anyone and get heard a million times. And as a result, sometimes we feel like voices in the wilderness trying to actually document things. We were trained as newspaper reporters and you could never insert anything into a story that you couldn't back up, and you had to have the documentation. Now you go online and there it is — and no one even mentions where the original documentation was.

So a lot of our work involves going to county courthouses in addition to spending mind-numbing hours online poring through documents nobody else would probably be interested in. But the hope is that if you can prove it, it will get legs and it will matter the outcome of the campaign.

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People might think the goal of opposition research is to drive other candidates, to scare other candidates, away from running. Is that true?

I would say in some cases, yes. I mean, we've actually done research on potential candidates that uncovered serious problems that, once they were released, did discourage them from running.  We've actually seen some candidates drop out of the race before they've actually entered it.

A lot of people ask us, aren't you just basically keeping people from running who might otherwise have been good leaders by making them concerned about the possibility of having this information made public?

And I think it's hard to say who might choose not to run because of expected scrutiny.

It's amazing to us how few people really do consider the skeletons in their closets or the mistakes they've made. Everyone makes mistakes, and usually it has more to do with how they respond to the public notice of those mistakes than the mistakes themselves.

But sometimes you find things that, Wow — you think, I can't believe this person ever ran for office knowing they had this in their history.

Do campaigns hire you to vet their own candidates?

Yes, definitely, and in almost every case, we will research our candidate the same way we research the opponent.  We don't pull any punches because there's nothing to be gained by someone concealing from you your own weaknesses. So in that sense our work is totally objective. When it becomes not objective is in who gets the report, and so they then have that information and can use it. But sometimes we find our candidate is the weaker of the two and it's pretty obvious when you read the report.

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Without names, can you give some specifics where you found things on a candidate, that you think, can anybody go forward in public life knowing this is in his or her record?

I think it was the last cycle two years ago, a candidate who just had a history of not paying his bills and being sued by everyone, from other attorneys to the guy who mowed his grass for not paying his bills. And we're really thinking, who's gonna want to vote for this guy?

Then our second realization was, "Uh-oh, we may not get paid either!" In his case, in fact we did not get paid and we ended up having to sue the guy.

Are you surprised what voters care and don't care about?

Absolutely.  Sometimes you see a candidate and you think, This is insurmountable — and it's true. But in other cases, you think you really found something and the voters just don't respond at all. And then something that seems fairly minor really, really matters.

And Trump comes to mind because a person who says so many outlandish things that are often contradictory — in a normal campaign, those things would just be the death knell. But in this case, they slide right through. And I think it has to do with people just wanting to believe in him no matter what. And his comments that he could shoot someone in Times Square and no one would care — we've never seen that before in a campaign.

And so it's a little disconcerting to someone like us, whose job it is to find these things and show the voters, with the assumption that it's going to matter.

When we started, there were a lot of times where there were the candidates who had huge negatives but when the campaign released them, the public reacted against that. There was a case where guy was running for governor, and his opposing candidate released information that he was engaging in sex with transvestite prostitutes. And the reaction was, it was just so unseemly that the public actually sided — this was in Mississippi, mind you, and the transvestites were black and the candidate was white — they were so offended by the release of this information that he was elected.

When you look back at the early years, which is everything before basically Monica Lewinsky, the way the public responded to these negative revelations was different. Now they're dulled to them.

What effect have super PACs and the Citizens United decision had on your work? Because there are now multimillion-dollar organizations out there that may be doing pretty much what you're doing, on behalf of their candidates?

Yeah, you know, it can be a little scary. Because when you have just unlimited resources, the biggest danger in terms of the evaluation of the facts about a candidate is this "truth by repetition." And if you have the money to create an ostensible truth and repeat it ad infinitum until it becomes part of the publicly accepted "knowledge."

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You mean an untruth you make into a truth by repetition?

Exactly. Stephen Colbert called it "truthiness." And sometimes it's dazzle camouflage.  There's a lot of ways to misuse the truth, and the more money you have, the greater potential you have for doing that.

In your book "We're With Nobody," the title refers to when you go to look for public records, and the resistance you get, and people who are guardians of public records who think, I don't think you're the public we want to give this to. Why is there such misunderstanding about public records and open access to public records in this country?

I think it's partly because the people who control access to those records like it that way. Many times, we have gone into some county courthouse and there was somebody trying to get information, and the person behind the counter was just resisting, whether because they didn't want them to have I that information or they didn't want to be bothered to it.

We love it when someone does it. It's part of the game for us, is to overcome those obstacles. We know how to do it and they don't realize it when we walk in.

But sometimes you see the unsuspecting public in there, and we have actually intervened and told them, they can't deny you this information.

Because that is one of the underpinnings of our democracy. And it's one of the things that really does set the U.S. apart from other countries, and it's crucial.

So when we go in and someone starts trying to deny us, that kind of gets our hackles up and we push harder. And depending on why they're trying to deny it — if they're trying to protect someone — it tells us that we're getting warm.

We were in a small county courthouse. We walk in -- we know when we go in and ask for these transactions — land transactions, tax history, whatever —  of some well-known public official, that everyone sitting at their desks is gonna look up. And then one of the clerks actually came out and went out into the parking lot and wrote down our tag number. We watched her do it.

And then later that day, we got followed to our hotel, and people sat outside our hotel and watched us, these thugs in this rusty pickup truck.

When that happens, when someone is so guarding the information that should be public, it just tells you you're getting warm.

So we go into these courthouses, and they always say, Now who are you with? As if that matters. And it doesn't matter in this country. And we always say, we're with nobody.

That's one thing I think the average citizen is unaware of: these are our records, and they have to give them to us.

They're online now increasingly. That's a big, big part of our job, is to make sure that that information is made public. The Internet, in terms of an online database, is definitely helpful. Sometimes the Internet database is not complete. You can't find everything, but you can find a lot of it.

You must see at firsthand the effect of the disappearance of local newspapers on democracy.

Oh yeah. No one is covering the board of supervisors' meetings. So they take advantage of that. They do things they wouldn't have done. You have to go in and actually read the minutes of those meetings, to see this person running for Congress whose only history was a local county supervisor.  You want to see everything he said, and every way he voted, and you want to create a portrait of this person. And if the newspaper is not covering those meetings any more, you're reduced to poring through the minutes, which may just have the scantest information available.

And that is cause for concern. The newspapers disappearing, cutting back their staff, that sort of thing — that has the effect of reducing the load of information that is avail to anyone trying to evaluate a candidate.

Do people every look at you and your partner and say, you guys are the problem with democracy?

Oh yeah for sure. Because you're "tarnishing" by bringing out all of these negative things. I'm not gonna argue that we don't increase the discourse and negativity — that's our job. It's to find strengths and weaknesses. But ultimately, why would you not want to know?

When you have a person who's running on a family values campaign who's not paying child support, don't you want to know that? In another case, when we had a candidate who beat up his girlfriend in an airport — is that the kind of guy you want to representing you in Congress? Or a woman who says that she is an upstanding citizen, who secretly ran a brothel?

Maybe you don't have any problem with brothels, but it tells you something, that that she presented one image and her actions represented something else altogether.

Are there any red lines that we can't cross any more?

You know, I'm afraid not. It's too soon to say what the long-lasting implications are for this presidential campaign, because it has really changed everything. And the things that Trump in particular has said that would never have been accepted in the past — it has to open the door to other people doing the same.

But now, with social media and with Trump's campaign, it's like you can just say anything and no one cares. What is considered important now often has no bearing on the facts at all.

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