Some say elections are won and lost by soldiers in the trenches. Boots on the ground. None fits that bill better than the contest for sheriff of Loudoun County, where boots cover socks, and soldiers are puppets.
In other words: Sock puppets.
Of the gifts Loudoun County politics bestows upon local bloggers – and trust me, the cornucopia is bountiful – few surpass the sideshows and subplots of our beloved quadrennial sheriff campaigns.
This year, the incumbent Sheriff Mike Chapman faces former deputy Eric Noble in the battle for the Republican nomination, which will be decided on May 2 at the Loudoun County Republican Committee (LCRC) convention. Both are likeable, decent men. As noted in yesterday’s article, Chapman has enjoyed a successful first term in office, though periodically under surprising criticism from political opponents within the LCRC.
One of Noble’s key errors in the run up to this race was to engage in anonymous commenting on local news sites, along with his campaign “tag team” member and former Loudoun deputy, Ricky Frye. Despite being an impressive public speaker and – in my opinion – political natural, Noble has undercut some of his key campaign messages this time around. For instance, Noble has levelled the charge that Chapman’s management style is too controlling and extends too far down the chain of command, but experienced managers may well read the story that follows as evidence of Chapman’s need to do exactly that, coming in, in order to improve the agency.
This unforced error does not mean Noble should be written off politically: If he does not prevail on May 2, he seems a likely candidate for another office in the future.
But some convention voters may balk because, as Chapman has said, the expectation of honesty and integrity is higher for the Sheriff’s Office than for most jobs: “We don’t just have to abide by the law. We have to abide by General Orders.”
So, about this rookie mistake. Who among us has not been tempted to don a persona and give it voice? Fulminating or complaining from the safety of anonymity: What finer of guilty pleasures can there be? Be cautious when holding forth on matters over which you someday wish to preside, of course. Like if you plan to get into a pitched and negative political campaign, and you plan to be the one pushing the negative angle, then you might want to be really, really non-specific in your anonymous statements.
So they don’t get traced back to you.
But in any case, the Loudoun County sock puppet story needs to be brought out into the open so it can be fully acknowledged, and put to bed. It will be useful for those interested in this particular campaign, and perhaps also for anyone attempting to balance puppetry and politics going forward.
Chapman, Noble and Frye are not the only characters in this tale. But they are the only ones made of flesh and blood.
Chapman accidentally uncovered the whole bizarre mess in 2014, when he was going to recommend Noble – at the time, considered by Chapman a key senior staff member – to assist on an educational assignment. Certain emails surfaced, including correspondence between Noble and former deputy, Ricky Frye, discussing their use of aliases to post anonymous newspaper comments. Through further investigation, Chapman found evidence that this might have been going on for some time. (Some of the documents have been obtained through FOIA requests and posted at the “34 Questions” Web site).
To summarize how this odd blossom bloomed:
Noble said in an email, “I was calling Chapman a half pint retired fed.” A quick search led to this comment at Leesburg Today.
Ergo, we see that Noble is “Loudounlifer.”
In the same exchange, Frye said he had posted a comment as “Lone Wolf” which can be found at the same story.
Next, Noble says in June 27 emails he intends to “start building more aliases” and “I might even talk Erika up some more with another alias.” Frye also discloses his observations on how the news sites release comments – “…LTM I think are reviewed manually as opposed to LT that go through a quick electronic filter” – suggesting his activity probably went on for a little while.
Together, these facts paint a picture of two guys staying busy under different handles for a period of time.
Chapman discovered, by reviewing more comments with information about the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office that only certain people would have been privy to, some other aliases Noble and Frye were likely using, such as “In The Know” and “Yosemite Sam.”
My own further cross reference of comment conversations and sock-puppetry (commenters talking to each other and/or apparently themselves) against certain sources – including Noble’s public statements around the Web, the debate transcript and his Web site content – brings up other possible aliases for Noble and Frye, including:
- Word from the Street
- Omar Sheriff
- and, frankly, quite a few others
Now, I can’t say with absolute certainty if these were used by Noble and Frye, and if so, for how long, but because of the stuff these puppets said and the way these puppets wrote, I have strong suspicions. If you were to check into these, I think you would, too.
(By the way, if you ever want to go puppet hunting on your own, Google Advanced Search is your friend).
As we all know, the conversation of puppets tends to follow fairly closely from the voices of the people controlling said puppets. And what we learn from the police puppets is no exception. Some samples:
On November 20, 2013, Loudoun Lifer said: The problem is that Chapman is shady with the truth … As always, no concept of a leader accepting responsibility.
On June 12, 2014, Loudoun Lifer said: Chapman’s “restructuring” included the elimination of the Narcotics Unit even as the County sees a record number of fatal drug overdoses. Leadership, accountability, basic financial responsibility….how about a lack of basic competency?
On June 25, 2014, Yosemitesam said: These types of incidents will continue to occur as long as you have a Sheriff that is out of touch and incompetent and couldn’t care less about his deputies or those they protect.
On July 3, 2014, Lonewolf said: Spend all the money in the world on bells and whistles and nothing will improve until Loudoun Voters kick Chapman and his ilk, out of Loudoun County with extreme prejudice.
Pretty good, eh? And if you act now, you’ll also receive more groovy stylings of these fabulous sock puppets – free:
How long exactly was Eric Noble making negative statements about his agency through anonymous Web comments? There are many more comments and sock puppets who might be Noble or Frye than those linked to above. Arguably, the comments that sound like Noble and Frye go back over three years. But Noble’s apology at the debate mentioned a “moment” of making comments, along the lines of the “youthful indiscretion that I deeply regret.”
Although he says he began to lose faith in Sheriff Chapman’s management “about two weeks into the administration,” Noble implies his sock puppet activity was very limited.
The day I made an announcement for sheriff – November 24, 2014 – I made a pledge that I would not read any comments in any blog, or any paper. And, by default, I wouldn’t comment on any story, in any paper … Now, in 2014, were there a couple of occasions where I commented in a paper under an alias? Absolutely … Is it my finest hour? No. I’m clear about that.
Noble notes it is a popular pastime in Loudoun, with “a history of people using the comments sections of newspaper stories to try to drive their point home… There were and are a lot of people commenting.”
And, Noble observes, the pro-Chapman people have been quick to point to him:
To this sheriff, everybody who comments in the paper is apparently me. And everybody who commented in the papers was apparently me. And I guess I’m responsible for every bad thing that’s ever happened in the agency from January 1, 2012, until now … I’m willing to admit my culpability, where I was culpable, but I’m not going to be the guy who sits here and says it was all me, because it wasn’t. And in fact I probably exercised more restraint than most people did.
But this whole sock puppet genre is shady business, and we do know that Noble himself admitted to at least intending to participate under multiple names.
One thing I learned during my puppet hunt was that many themes recur. Skimming comments since early 2012 makes for a tantalizing read, because of this repetition. These themes appear as early as the first quarter of 2012 and have continued through the first quarter of this year, so technically it is possible Noble and/or Frye were in sock puppet mode for three years – or virtually Mike Chapman’s entire term in office.
The types of themes that drive these puppets mad include:
- Chapman dismissing 11 people
- Any recognition of Chapman
- References to former Sheriff Isom, especially in the context of establishing longevity at the agency
- Deputy off-duty conduct, including alcohol
- “press releases”
- “local” law enforcement
The themes tend to appear in statements that remind us of other statements we believe are from Noble and Frye; again, going back to 2012. But that does not mean the sock puppets conversing on these issues, about which Noble has seemed quite interested, are all Noble and Frye. It seems just as likely this activity had been going on, and Noble and Frye saw what their fellow employees were doing, and then occasionally got involved themselves. Both of these men had high positions in the LCSO and neither seems particularly tech-savvy (for reasons I will go into below).
I personally see them as followers rather than instigators.
Just as a matter of interest on how this story could be blown open: If someone really wanted to write a tell-all about the police puppetry in recent years, that someone would need to have an in with the editorial or possibly technical people at the Loudoun Times-Mirror or Leesburg Today. In fact, if someone did have such a connection, they could probably reveal everything there is to know about who controlled which puppets …. in less than an hour. Because, as Noble and Frye don’t seem to be aware, the default behavior of Web applications is to capture a sender’s IP address. I don’t mean the server log files, mind you. Of course, your IP is captured in the logs. I mean: right there in the user interface where editors edit and writers submit their work.
In WordPress, for instance, it would require the computer forensics expertise of a five-year old playing Angry Birds, to acquire a list of comments submitted from any IP address. The address appears with each comment, as a hyperlink. You can actually accidentally get a list of every comment sent by any person, easily, just by clicking.
Both Loudoun news sites probably have some proprietary software running, but I think it is likely that someone at each of those companies has a pretty good idea which comments came from the same persons; or the same locations, anyway.
If you really wanted to be a clever sock puppet and never get caught, you would need to move your computer to different IP addresses for each personality. You would need to bounce from home, to Starbucks, to Panera, to McDonalds, every time you change personalities – and make darn sure you never include a real email address on any of them. FYI.
Chapman believes Noble acted in a way that’s beneath the office of sheriff: “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
When Noble points out that Chapman seemed to have people watching and participating in some of the comment discussions as well, Chapman states that was not the case:
I didn’t have anybody. People have commented on my behalf, you know, there were anonymous bloggers that have commented on my behalf. But I have never, and I will never, personally comment. It’s unconscionable that somebody in that position, a senior management position, would resort to that. To attack his administration, his boss, and the senior administration through targeted blogs like that. Especially when he had unfettered access to me, to everybody else on the management team. If there are issues, the way that you handle it at that level is by discussion, not by trying to demean and humiliate members of your administration and your sheriff in a public forum.
By getting caught sock-puppeting, Eric Noble does open the door to speculation about how much time he spent publicly tearing down the agency he wishes to lead. If he viewed anonymous commenting as a type of civic participation, as a means for conveying the truth to the public or a warning about what he perceived as dangerous problems, he – and others – might rationalize the behavior. Then, they need to decide if Noble’s explanation will suffice.