Friday, March 24, 2006

A former Democratic Party researcher yesterday pleaded guilty in federal court to a misdemeanor charge of computer fraud in which she illegally obtained Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele’s credit report last summer.

Lauren B. Weiner, 25, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in the District, admitting that she took orders from her boss and that she knew her actions were wrong at the time.

A computer fraud conviction carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. But Miss Weiner’s charges will be dropped in a year if she performs 150 hours of community service, defense attorney Whitney Ellerman said.

Her plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office states that the credit report was destroyed, and that Mr. Steele, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, suffered “no economic loss.”

However, Mr. Steele’s attorney said the lieutenant governor wants to make sure his information is not in Democrats’ hands, and the plea deal “doesn’t make it less likely” that Mr. Steele will sue Miss Weiner and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), for whom she worked.

The DSCC raises money for and supports Democratic senatorial candidates. It is headed by Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York and has denied any involvement in Miss Weiner’s illegal activities.

While doing research on Mr. Steele in July, Miss Weiner found his Social Security number, then used it to obtain his credit information by impersonating him on Web sites, according to the plea deal. She even set up a fake e-mail account for Mr. Steele,, to receive his information.

Miss Weiner was directed to obtain the information by former DSCC Research Director Katie Barge, the plea deal states.

Miss Barge has not been charged. She resigned from the DSCC with Miss Weiner in September.

DSCC spokesman Phil Singer said the plea agreement shows that DSCC’s response was “exemplary.”

The DSCC “made sure it was an isolated incident … put in protections to ensure that it would never happen again” and “did not use the credit report for any financial or political purpose,” he said.

Steele campaign spokeswoman Melissa Sellers said the incident shows “that Michael Steele’s opponents are so afraid of his message of hope and empowerment that they are employing a strategy of relentless negative attacks, offending common decency, honesty, and even the rule of law.”

At the beginning of yesterday’s hearing, Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola announced that “Michael Steele is a friend of mine,” adding that he and Mr. Steele belong to an association of Catholic laypersons.

Neither side objected, and the hearing continued.

Mr. Steele is campaigning to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Baltimore Democrat.

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