Media Matters identifies unresolved questions on Martinez memo

Following the April 6 revelation that that a senior aide to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) authored a memo that described the Terri Schiavo case as “a great political issue” that would excite “the pro-life base” and be a “tough issue for Democrats,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, told CNN congressional correspondent Joe Johns on the April 7 edition of CNN's Inside Politics: “Now that we know where the memo came from, and the staff member has resigned, that's pretty much the end of it.”

But the Martinez revelation is not, as Lott claimed, “the end of it.” In a follow-up article on April 8, Washington Post staff writer Mike Allen wrote that Martinez's staff is looking into whether other staffers in the office had seen the memo and whether Brian Darling, the Martinez staffer who resigned after reportedly admitting authoring the memo, had distributed it to other Senate offices. But there are other questions, and perhaps the media will look past Martinez's account of what happened, especially given his history of disavowing politically damaging conduct by staffers, and look past the results of Martinez's staff's investigation, to try to resolve these questions:

Question 1: Were copies of the memo distributed to other Republican senators?

ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider defended the network's original March 18 piece that broke the story of the memo. He told The Washington Post in a March 30 article that “ABC News had very reliable, multiple sources who indicated the memo was distributed to Republicans on the floor of the Senate. We have no doubt it was distributed to Republicans.”

One of Martinez's own aides suggested the possibility that additional copies may have been distributed to other Senate offices in the April 8 Post article:

A Martinez aide who refused to be named said the departed aide, counsel Brian H. Darling, “may have disseminated to other offices” a memo that discussed the political ramifications of intervening in the case of Schiavo, the brain-damaged Floridian who died last month after she was taken off a feeding tube.

Question 2: Was a separate copy of the memo obtained by Democrats from an outraged Republican senator?

The Washington Times reported on April 7 that Democratic Hill staffers were suggesting that a Senate Republican who was angry about the memo passed another copy of it to Democrats. This raises questions about the extent of the distribution and the extent to which it did indeed reflect Republican political strategy on the legislation. The Times reported:

Mr. Martinez's explanation still doesn't square with the contention of some Democrats that the memo was knowingly given by a disgruntled Republican to a Democrat. “A Democratic senator received the memo from an outraged Republican senator,” a Senate Democratic aide said yesterday, on the condition of anonymity.

Question 3: Did Senate Republican staffers play a role in spreading the lie that Sen. Harry Reid's (D-NV) office was responsible for producing the memo? Who are those staffers? Will they face any consequences for their smear campaign?

Both The American Spectator and Joshua Claybourn of the blog In the Agora reported that Republican Senate staffers told them that staff of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's office had authored the memo as a “dirty trick.” (Media Matters for America has documented conservatives' attempts to cast doubt on the idea that Republicans were the source of the memo.) As the American Spectator reported on March 24:

However, Republican leadership staffers now believe the document was generated out of the Democratic opposition research office set up recently by Sen. Harry Reid, and distributed to some Democratic Senate staffers claiming it was a GOP document, in the hope -- or more likely expectation -- that it would then be leaked by those Democrats to reporters.

Claybourn posted a March 26 blog entry claiming that four anonymous GOP Senate staffers had accused a Reid aide of distributing “distributing forged 'talking points' to members of the media and claiming Republican authorship. Though this information has since been excised from the post, conservative syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, who has been actively following this subplot on her blog, stated in an April 7 post that In the Agora originally identified them as staff members of Martinez and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA):

Sen. Mel Martinez told the Washington Times he did not see the Schiavo memo until ABC News and the Post publicized it. But Sen. Tom Harkin told the Post that when Martinez handed him the memo, "[Martinez] said these were talking points -- something that we're working on here."

How could Sen. Martinez describe the contents of the memo if he had not seen it? And who is “we?”

Then there's Brian Darling, Martinez's legal counsel (until last night, when he resigned). According to the Post, Darling is taking the blame for authoring the Schiavo memo.

Readers of this site will recall that nearly two weeks ago Josh Claybourn of In the Agora received a false tip from four people, two of whom claimed to work for Sen. Martinez. (The other two claimed to work for Sen. Rick Santorum.) Claybourn's sources falsely stated that the Schiavo memo was authored and circulated by a young “renegade” aide working for Sen. Harry Reid. Two of Claybourn's sources stated that they saw the Reid aide passing out the memo.

Question 4: What did Martinez know, and when did he know it?

In his April 6 statement, Martinez denied having seen the memo: “Until this afternoon, I had never seen it and had no idea a copy of it had ever been in my possession.” He also stated with assurance, despite not having conducted an investigation, that the memo “was not approved by me or any other member of my staff, nor were we aware of its existence until very recently.”

His assertions raise a number of questions. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) said that Martinez handed him a copy of the talking points on the Senate floor. The Post reported on April 7:

Harkin said in an interview that Martinez handed him the memo on the Senate floor, in hopes of gaining his support for the bill giving federal courts jurisdiction in the Florida case in an effort to restore the brain-damaged Florida woman's feeding tube. “He said these were talking points -- something that we're working on here,” Harkin said.

Given Harkin's assertion, the two previous incidents of Martinez disavowing his staff's conduct, and reports that the memo borrowed from a previous press release from Martinez's office, it defies reason that Martinez did not think to question his staff about their possible involvement in the memo's creation until this week.