A GOP volunteer who alleged he was assaulted because of his political work has recanted his version of events, but not before the story of his alleged assault became the subject of bizarre allegations lobbed at the spouse of state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, the 2nd District Democratic candidate for Congress.
Earlier Monday, Media Trackers, a conservative website dedicated largely to digging up dirt on Democrats, claimed to have obtained text messages sent by Pocan's husband, Phil Frank, to the alleged victim, Kyle Wood, who works for Pocan's GOP challenger, Chad Lee.
“Mark Pocan’s Husband Told Beaten GOP Operative “You’re A Marked Man,” Threatened and Harassed Via Text Message” declared the headline.
From the beginning of the day, when I began to investigate the allegations, the verifiable evidence was thin, to put it kindly. As a likely result, some media haven’t touched the case at all -- the Wisconsin State Journal, for instance, didn't write about it until late Monday after police reported the recanting by Wood. Nevertheless, the Media Trackers story went viral on conservative websites and blogs across the country.
Those commenting on the story include Ann Althouse, a UW law professor with a popular national blog, though she reserved judgment on its credibility. A blogger for Red State, however, a national conservative website, treated the allegations as fact. Type in Pocan’s name on Twitter, and the Media Trackers story is retweeted ad nauseum. Even Pocan’s Wikipedia page was updated alleging the texts as fact, although that sentence was removed late Monday afternoon.
The article, which was online from early morning Monday until late in the afternoon, was eventually taken down by Media Trackers.
"Media Trackers is continuing to follow developments in this story, but due to the ongoing criminal investigation we have chosen to remove the allegations raised by both sides from our website," reads the updated story.
If the alleged text exchange that Media Trackers posted online were indeed linked to Frank, it would undoubtedly have become a major scandal. The texts attributed to Frank included vicious threats to Wood, as well as racist comments about Lee’s wife and derogatory language referencing Wood’s sexuality.
But from the beginning, neither Wood nor Media Trackers provided any evidence that the texts actually came from Frank’s phone -- or that the texts were even sent from a phone at all.
Brian Sikma, the author of the article and Media Tracker's lead writer, said Wood sent him the transcript of the text exchange by email.
“Mr. Wood approached us directly, we’ve been in touch," says Sikma. “He sent us the transcript of the exchange.”
Wood could not provide him with Frank’s phone number, Sikma said, because Wood did not have his cellphone at the time.
“His actual phone was in the possession of investigators,” he said, adding that Wood had forwarded the texts from his phone to his email account.
Sikma provided me the number for Wood’s cellphone, which Sikma says Wood now has in his possession, but Wood did not respond to a request for comment.
The Pocan campaign says the text messages were entirely made up.
"These allegations are completely false,” said Pocan campaign manager Dan McNally. “These text messages are fabricated and we've referred this matter to Madison police. We are currently in discussions with an attorney and intend to sue for libel or defamation."
Media Trackers is not the first media to report on Wood's alleged beating or to interview the victim. Both the Wisconsin Reporter, a conservative online news site, and Christian Schneider, a columnist who writes on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s website, interviewed Wood in recent days. In both instances, Wood said he believed he was targeted because of his political associations, but made no mention of Frank.
"There was no mention of the text messages or Phil Frank in my interview," said Schneider in an email responding to questions about the incident. "Today’s Media Trackers report was as surprising to me as it was to anyone else."
The Lee campaign did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
While Media Tracker’s headline reported the text messages as fact, Sikma said he was only publishing the fact that Wood made the allegations. In addition, he says, he talked with “other sources” close to Wood, who he says also know Frank.
Late in the afternoon Monday, Madison Police updated the incident report on Wood's alleged assault:
“In an interview this afternoon with Madison Police detectives, the victim in this case recanted his earlier statements in regards to this crime. This crime, alleged to have occurred on High Street in the South Police District, will be cleared as "Unfounded" for case reporting purposes. Once follow up investigation is completed, MPD's case file will be reviewed with Dane County District Attorney's Office.”