The shadowy figure who threatened to expose the “secrets” of a Pennsylvania state lawmaker unless she changed her stance on marijuana and publicly supported its decriminalization could be subject to prosecution, some legal experts say.
State police confirmed Thursday they are actively investigating the anonymous online ultimatum issued to Republican state Rep. Tarah Toohil -- who represents the area of Hazleton just south of Wilkes-Barre -- in the heat of the fall campaign, though it's unclear whether they have established criminal intent or even identified a suspect.
A brief video posted on YouTube last October showed photos of two young women seated at a table with a bong and what appeared to be marijuana. The video asked, “Does PA Republican State Rep Tara Toohil believe in traditional Republican values?”
Toohil, 33, confirmed she was one of the women in the photos but said they were taken more than a decade ago.
“I am not that young woman today,” she said in an Oct. 17 video. “This is a blatant and personal attack against me as a legislator.” Toohil also warned young people about drugs and urged them to be “careful with the choices that you make.”
A second video hit YouTube a few weeks later, just before the election -- and this one caught the attention of law enforcement.
It bore the slogan and logo of Anonymous, the hacker-activist group that has been linked to a number of high-profile computer attacks and crimes. A computerized, British-accented voice expressed disappointment that Toohil supported laws that “put people in jail for doing the same thing that you once did. We will not stand for this hypocrisy.” The narrator then demanded that Toohil publicly advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana in Pennsylvania.
“Everyone has secrets,” the voice said. “Please do not give us a reason to expose yours.”
The video alarmed the House GOP caucus, which referred it to counsel, then state police.
“I took it as somebody threatening a legislator,” said GOP spokesman Steve Miskin.
State police spokeswoman Maria Finn confirmed Thursday that the probe, first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, is active and ongoing. She declined to comment further.
State law makes it a crime to threaten :unlawful harm” to a public official with the intent of influencing his or her official action. Another section of the law forbids any “unlawful act” in retaliation for past official action.
The video crossed the line, said Michael Skinner, a former Chester County assistant district attorney now in private practice.
“The mere fact she's a public official, and you're demanding she take a certain action or there will be consequences, is definitely a crime,” he said. “You want politicians to be able to be free-minded and not worry about the consequences.”
Another expert, Temple Law School professor David Post, isn't so sure a law was broken. Exposing facts about a public official is constitutionally protected speech, he said. For example, interest groups can target lawmakers who vote a certain way with negative campaign ads that expose unflattering details about the candidates' personal lives.
“This case falls in an odd place between blackmail on the one hand and trying to influence the electoral process on the other,” Post said Thursday. “And that's what makes it tough.”
Toohil, a lawyer who toppled Democratic Majority Leader Todd Eachus in 2010 and won re-election to a second term last November, did not respond to a request for comment.
Assuming the video can be traced to its source -- no easy task, depending on how the sender's identity was masked -- police would likely want to try to determine intent, said Peter Paul Olszewski Jr., a former Luzerne County district attorney and judge.
He agreed with Post that it's a gray area of the law, but said he understands why police appear to be taking the video seriously.
“When you are talking about the potential safety of public figures, you want to error on the side of caution,” said Olszewski, now in private practice. “I certainly believe that a legislator or other public official could feel threatened or intimidated by its receipt and I think it's horrendous conduct.”