Detroit — For the third time this year, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer is accusing Republicans of attempting to spy on his campaign.
But this time, the suspected political subterfuge involves a high-tech hidden camera and a video memory disk that fell into the hands of Democrats.
And Republicans are defending their campaign snooping.
Schauer’s campaign and Oakland County Democrats recently came into possession of a tiny disk containing raw video footage of a young woman and man who secretly recorded a Schauer campaign fundraiser June 22 at a private home in Bloomfield Hills.
A spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party acknowledged Wednesday the state party sent staffers Natalie Collins and Kyle Anderson into the fundraiser to videotape Schauer and his running mate, Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown.
Tracking and recording the words and actions of candidates isn’t new, said Darren Littell, communications director of the Michigan Republican Party.
Littell defended the ethical nature of using hidden cameras. Secretly recorded video harmed Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign when he was caught on tape claiming 47 percent of Americans depend on the government, making them sure votes for President Barack Obama.
“Republicans do it; Democrats do it,” Littell told The Detroit News. “People use different ways to get the footage. ... This is a newer approach.”
Schauer spokesman Zack Pohl called it a “dirty trick.”
“I would call on the two people in this video, Kyle and Natalie, to be fired immediately,” Pohl said.
Littell said the two GOP state party staffers did nothing wrong.
Frank Houston, chairman of the Oakland County Democratic Party, said tracking candidates at public events is an acceptable campaign tactic.
“That’s a little different than sneaking into private meetings,” Houston said. “It’s totally legitimate to track what people are doing. … What is new about this is they’re acting like they’re in ‘Mission Impossible’ or James Bond or something and trying to do it on the fly. That’s the line that seems to be getting crossed here.”
Collins, a regional press secretary and full-time employee for the state GOP, was wearing a pair of glasses that contained a hidden camera in the frame, Littell said.
The disk containing the video was found on the floor of the Pipefitters Local 636 union hall in Farmington Hills after a July 8 Oakland County Democratic Party meeting, Houston said.
Portions of the video recording reviewed by The Detroit News shows Collins and Anderson entering the home, helping themselves to appetizers, commenting on the house’s interior design and eventually making small talk with Brown. The YouTube clips and accompanying commentary were posted by the Schauer campaign.
Collins and Anderson did not pay to attend the fundraiser because they were not asked to, Littell said.
A Schauer campaign volunteer snapped two photos of the pair along with the other attendees, Schauer spokesman Zack Pohl said.
The woman can be heard on the video complaining about being photographed while eating pineapple. The pair never approached Schauer, Pohl said.
At one point, Collins and Anderson encountered Schauer fundraising employee Candace Grooms, who asked how they learned about the fundraiser.
“We went to an event last weekend, actually, and they were talking about it then,” Collins told the staffer.
Collins told Grooms they learned about it at a previous June 14 fundraiser in Ferndale after “we just googled ‘Mark Schauer events.’ ”
The fundraiser was not widely publicized, Pohl said.
Pohl said the Schauer campaign employee became suspicious of the pair and sent him a text message alerting him about the presence of possible Republican trackers inside the fundraiser. That’s not entirely unusual in political campaigns for members of an opposing party to buy access to a private fundraiser, Pohl said.
“They had a suspicion, but no way to prove it. It’s not like they pulled out a camera or anything,” Pohl said. “We didn’t realize they recorded it with their super-secret spy glasses.”
As the pair left the home, Collins can be heard saying, “OK, that lady was freaking me out.”
“Yeah,” Anderson replied.
As they were getting into a car, with the video still recording, Anderson can be heard telling his fellow tracker: “I think she’s onto us.”
“I think so, too,” Collins replied. “But I don’t think anyone else is.”
“I was getting kind of nervous near the end there,” Anderson said.
'Nixonian dirty tricks'
Houston contends the same young woman and man may have been in attendance at the July 8 Oakland County Democratic Party meeting, which occurred more than two weeks after the Schauer fundraiser.
Littell acknowledged the state party has been looking for a misplaced video card. Houston said he turned over the memory disk last week to the Schauer campaign.
In the video, Collins talks to Anderson about how she got a call from a Schauer staffer about volunteering to make phone calls for the campaign.
Using that bit of information and the name she used at the fundraiser, Schauer’s staff was able to identify the pair through social media, Pohl said.
“We’re pretty sure they’ve at least tried to volunteer for the campaign,” he said.
Littell acknowledged this isn’t the first time the GOP has deployed a tracker wearing glasses with a hidden camera.
“We’ve been using them to track Democrats,” Littell said.
The Michigan Democratic Party does not use hidden cameras to track Republican candidates, spokesman Joshua Pugh said.
Meanwhile, Democrats are flummoxed by the tactics Republicans are deploying to videotape their candidates.
“From what we can tell, it looks like the Republican Party has invested in some pretty high-end technology and they have some shoddy implementation,” Houston said.
This isn’t the first instance Schauer’s campaign has accused Republicans of attempting to spy on their campaign.
In March, a one-time videographer for Gov. Rick Snyder’s campaign was caught posing as a CNN reporter at a Schauer event in Coldwater.
Last month, an unpaid Snyder campaign intern attempted to volunteer for Schauer’s campaign until liberal blogger Chris Savage exposed the college student’s emails and the governor’s campaign quickly fired him and condemned his behavior.
“These Nixonian dirty tricks are beneath a sitting governor,” said Pohl, referring to former President Richard Nixon’s infamous campaign skullduggery in the early 1970s. “To send people multiple times to Mark Schauer events lying about and misrepresenting who they are is shameful.”
Littell said he caught Democrats attempting to record audio on their smart phones at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference last September.