More Phone Pranks

Faithful SF Weekly readers may remember Lee Kaplan, the self-appointed watchdog of the Bay Area's pro-Palestinian groups ("Disturbing the Peace," Aug. 9). Over the past three years, Kaplan has gone in disguise to training sessions and conferences to get the inside scoop on the activities of such groups, which he views as dangerous and subversive. Usually, his tricks just annoy and alarm his subjects. In August, however, he tried a ruse that brought him to the attention of lawyers for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Two Palo Alto groups, the Rebuilding Alliance and the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, had organized a conference call between local activists, members of Palo Alto Congresswoman Anna Eshoo's staff, and on-the-ground volunteers in Lebanon and Gaza; they hoped to convince the congresswoman to co-sponsor a bill calling for a cease-fire in the Middle East. Kaplan, having registered under the name Lee Mulberry, got in on the call. According to several of the call's participants, Kaplan claimed to be a member of Eshoo's staff and announced that the call was cancelled. He also allegedly denounced a man calling in from Gaza as a terrorist.

Donna Baranski-Walker, executive director of the Rebuilding Alliance, had been warned that there might be trouble with the conference call. Kaplan had phoned Congresswoman Eshoo's office earlier in the morning, using his real name, and had declared the call illegal, saying that nonprofit groups aren't allowed to lobby for legislation. In fact, nonprofits can spend money to influence legislation — up to a certain amount (based on the type of nonprofit and its budget).

When Baranski-Walker joined the call, it was already in an uproar. "By the time I came on, there was a Mr. Mulberry on the call, insulting the speakers. It was clear he wasn't going to let the floor go," she says. She quickly shut down the call, with a promise to reschedule. The call's sponsors checked the list of phone numbers from which participants had called in, and found one number that was unfamiliar and unlisted. They say they paid $15 to a Web site offering a reverse phone directory; when they tapped in the number, up came the name Lee Kaplan.

Jason Mahler, Eshoo's chief of staff, took part in the rescheduled conference call three weeks later, during which he apologized for the previous interruption and declared Kaplan's actions "extremely unusual and likely illegal." He told the callers that Eshoo's office had asked the House of Representative's General Counsel to contact Kaplan and investigate the incident. "We take it very seriously if someone impersonates a member of staff and proceeds to insult our constituents," he said. Kaplan, for his part, writes on the Web site Canadafreepress.com that he had claimed he was "calling as a favor to the congresswoman's office," not as a staffer; he does not mention using a false name. After getting cut off, he writes, he phoned Eshoo's district office in Palo Alto, and was told the call had been "canceled pending a review by legal counsel."

It is a federal crime to impersonate a U.S. official. However, the General Counsel's office didn't respond to numerous messages asking about the status of the investigation — presumably, everyone in the office was too busy reading ex-Rep. Mark Foley's instant messages.

 
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