tampabay.com

Blog's motive raises doubts

The force behind the Web site that helped lead to the downfall of former Rep. Mark Foley remains a mystery.

By ANITA KUMAR
Published October 7, 2006


WASHINGTON - The public disclosure of Mark Foley's behavior began with a Web site designed to expose "sex predators before they can get to our kids."

The blog with the vigilante streak was barely noticed when it was created in late July.

There were few posts and comments, a small amount of traffic and barely, if any, links by other sites or mentions in search engines like Google.

Not until the scandal erupted.

The unknown blogger posted copies of some of Foley's e-mails to a former page on Sept. 24. Four days later, ABC News published a story on its Web site about the e-mails after Foley's election opponent called for an investigation.

Just a day later, after the release of sexually explicit instant messages, the Republican congressman resigned.

Many people, especially in the online world, have dubbed the Internet site - www.stopsexpredators.blogspot.com - as a "bogus blog" that was merely formed to expose Foley.

"It seems to be set up for the purpose of releasing this information," said Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who created the blog instapundit.com in 2001. "It has five or six posts and then brings down a member of Congress?"

Usually, bloggers starting new online chats will write frequently for a few weeks and then less or not at all when they fail to get the response they want.

Stopsexpredators had a mere seven posts in two months before Foley's name was first mentioned.

It started July 28 with a single post about why the blog had formed. "This site is intended to serve as a clearing house for the public to report sex predators and as a resource for concerned parents and citizens."

Almost a month later, there are posts about the "Sickening Six" predators, the Chandra Levy and JonBenet Ramsey cases and members of Congress who have gotten into trouble.

Then on Sept. 21, a post read "the blog has been noticed and some shocking emails have been received!!!!" One of the e-mails suggests Foley was a "danger to any young, slightly attractive young man on The Hill."

The next post includes the Foley e-mails to the 16-year-old Louisiana page that led to the questions, and ultimately his downfall.

The Web site Radar describes the blog as a "pseudo-vigilante blog filled with plagiarized, hastily-assembled posts, which no one seems to have heard of, visited, or linked to before last week-and whose operator has a suspiciously savvy grasp of the news cycle."

Alexa, a Web tracking site, shows that traffic for the stopsexpredators was almost nonexistent for weeks, skyrocketing only after the Foley scandal broke.

"If you want to get the word out, this is not the avenue," said Barry Hollander, a University of Georgia journalism professor who teaches about the Internet. "Anyone who is suspicious of this blog has a reason to be. It just doesn't smell right."

The blogsphere is full of conspiracy theories on who might be behind the Web site. The guesses include Democrats, including associates of former President Bill Clinton; previously disgraced bloggers; liberal leaning billionaire George Soros; and anyone who was frustrated by their lack of success at getting the story out through newspapers and TV networks.

Stopsexpredators is on a Web site called Blogger that allows anonymous, free blogs that can be manipulated so posts can be stamped with a different date and time than they were actually written.

No one responded to an e-mail address given on the blog, and a post earlier this week indicates that the blogger does not plan to reveal his or her identity.

"I am not Karl Rove, Mark Foley, or John Boehner," he wrote about the presidential aide, the former congressman and the House majority leader.

"I am not employed in Democratic politics. I am not 'funded' by George Soros. I'm nobody that anybody should care about. So, please, go about your day as if I don't exist."

On Wednesday, someone calling himself Andrew Seldon listing an address in Portland, Ore., registered the address www.stopsexpredators.com. It's unclear whether that person is related to the original site. Seldon did not respond to an e-mail.

Whoever is behind it, finger-pointing about the release of the intern's e-mails began immediately and has built steadily through the week.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert blamed the media and Soros earlier this week. By Thursday, he appeared to set his sights on Democrats looking for a win in November.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi refuted the charges: "It's absolutely not true."

So did Soros: "The implication that I had something to do with this scandal is so far off the mark, that it's really laughable."

Soros reportedly contributes money to the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which critics call liberal. The group, whose donor list is not public, revealed this week that it had received the Louisiana page's e-mails in July and turned them over to the FBI.

Naomi Seligman Steiner, the group's deputy director, denies any involvement. "It's ludicrous."

ABC News has said former Republican-sponsored pages - not Democratic politicians or operatives - were the source of the instant messages it posted.

Posting accusations about child exploitation online is nothing new. Vigilante Web sites have been doing it for years.

In the late 1990s, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children even started a CyberTipline where concerned citizens can lodge complaints online, pasting suspicious e-mails or instant messages.

About 1,500 tips come in each week, more than a third anonymously.

"Things started to change," said Michelle Collins, the center's director of the exploited child unit. "Everyone sort of recognized we were going into uncharted territory."

Times staff writer Matthew Waite and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or 202-463-0576.