It was the conspiracy theorist’s conspiracy theory, with Karl Rove — adviser to President Bush and “evil genius” to the political left — right at the center.
“Rove personally connected to e-mail scandal,” read the Saturday headline on liberal blog Daily Kos, trumpeting a photo of Mr. Rove taken in Chattanooga, Tenn., in late February.
Mr. Rove, according to the liberal blogosphere, had set up an independent e-mail system so that he and other Republican operatives could communicate outside of the White House’s e-mail system, which is backed up automatically for record-keeping.
The problem, apparently, is that it wasn’t a conspiracy but rather a marketing ploy using April Fool’s Day for cover.
The photo, widely disseminated via the Internet, showed Mr. Rove with a folder labeled “Coptix” under his arm. Writers for some of the most widely read blogs deduced that Coptix, a Chattanooga-based Internet design company, had been hired by Mr. Rove for his e-mail scheme.
“This picture of Karl Rove is a crime scene!” said the satire site Wonkette.com.
Earlier this week, a Coptix executive announced that the whole thing had been an April Fool’s joke.
Josiah Roe, an executive vice president at Coptix, said a small group of Coptix executives doctored a photo of Mr. Rove and, using computer software, placed the folder under his arm. They then planted the photo on a local Chattanooga blog, they said, and allowed the conspiracy to disseminate.
“We watched the misinformation filter upward and outward,” Mr. Roe wrote in a column posted late Tuesday on the Web site for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, which is a Coptix client. “This has driven tens of thousands of visitors to our Web site. … We consider our Web marketing experiment a success.”
Coptix is tangentially associated with the Republican National Committee (RNC) and had become a topic of interest to left-wing blogs even before this prank. Coptix is affiliated with another Chattanooga-based Web company named Smartech, which is employed by the RNC.
Mr. Rove and other White House officials do use outside e-mail accounts, owned by the RNC, which are hosted on Smartech’s Web servers. Coptix backs up some of Smartech’s information, which is called “backup DNS hosting.”
Outside e-mail accounts used by Mr. Rove and other White House officials have drawn the attention of congressional Democrats. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, wrote to the RNC Wednesday asking the committee to turn over all e-mails “that relate to the use of federal agencies and federal resources for partisan political purposes.”
Mr. Waxman is investigating whether Mr. Rove’s deputy, J. Scott Jennings, violated the law by giving a political presentation to top officials at the General Services Administration.
The use of “nongovernmental e-mail accounts” by White House officials first came to light during the investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has been convicted of public corruption charges.
The accounts, which use the domain name “gwb43.com,” also have come to light in documents related to the firings of eight federal prosecutors last year.
Mr. Waxman also is looking into whether the White House has violated the Presidential Records Act of 1978 by using these outside accounts.
Mr. Roe, in an interview yesterday, was unrepentant about Coptix’s hoax.
“We felt like it was a pretty dead giveaway that it was fake. It was surprising to us how unscrupulous people were,” Mr. Roe told The Times. “It was funny to see people run with it like that, and it was funny.”
Both the Daily Kos and Wonkette.com acknowledged the misinformation in later posts.