What do you get when you mix a Democratic congressman facing a tough re-election battle, an outspoken Republican challenger famous for his rhetoric, and an NPR transcript of an interview with a journalist who recently found himself facing some heat for e-mail comments about conservatives?
Those are the ingredients for a disputed TV ad.
Here are the details:
Allen West, the Republican challenging Democratic Rep. Ron Klein in District 22, is known for his unique and often controversial soundbites. As Klein faces West for the second time in two years in the closely Democratic-Republican split South Florida district, he is trying to use West's words against him by portraying him as extreme.
In a Sept. 13, 2010, Klein TV ad, the announcer says:
"Allen West has extreme politcal views,'' and then quotes West speaking to a crowd saying: "I'm just honored to be here today with all of my fellow right wing extremists." (The ad doesn't state the location of that speech but the Klein campaign said it was from this July 2009 Broward County tea party event seen on YouTube.) The announcer then continues: "Allen West called Social Security a Ponzi scheme. He said this country has got to get on sound footing by destroying it. And West said that Medicare can be cut. Those aren't our values. Allen West. Too extreme for South Florida."
The text on the TV screen reads slightly differently in part from the voiceover: "Allen West called Social Security a 'Ponzi scheme.' Allen West: said Social Security should be destroyed." The text on the screen states that the source of those statements is NPR on Feb. 23, 2010.
In this Truth-O-Meter we wanted to explore: Did West call Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" and say "this country has got to get on sound footing by destroying it?" The district, which spans Broward and Palm Beach counties, has a heavy concentration of retirees so Social Security is a hot-button issue.
First we turned to the Klein campaign to ask for their documentation for the ad. Spokesperson Melissa Silverman e-mailed us a transcript of a Feb. 23 NPR interview between NPR Fresh Air host Terry Gross and David Weigel, then a reporter for the Washington Independent, an online news publication. The name of the Fresh Air episode was "CPAC, the Tea Party and the Remaking of the Right." Weigel had attended both the Conservative Political Action Conference that had been held about a week before in Washington, D.C., and the National Tea Party Convention, which was held about one month prior to his NPR interview.
Around minute 23 of the program, Gross asked:
"So is this a fair statement to make, that a lot of the Tea Partiers not only believe that taxes should be cut but that a lot of the programs that taxes pay for should be extremely cut or maybe even abolished, including Social Security and Medicaid, Medicare? "
Here was Weigel's response:
"That's absolutely true. And they'll put in some caveats about programs that people have paid into for a long time. But, you know, I talked to Allen West, who's kind of the perfect Tea Party candidate. He's a lieutenant - sorry - retired lieutenant colonel. He left the armed services after firing a weapon close to the head of an Iraqi prisoner and getting disciplined for it.
"He ran for Congress in 2008. He talked like this and he lost. But he's running again, and he's raised more money than his opponent -- Congressman Ron Klein. And I talked to him at CPAC. He got on the CPAC bill and he said, yes, Social Security's a Ponzi scheme, it's the biggest Ponzi scheme, but I'm not going to get rid of it right away but I, you know, hint-hint, eventually this country's got to get on sound footing by destroying it."
We tracked down Weigel and asked him about his comments about West on NPR. Weigel quit his job blogging for the Washington Post this summer after e-mails he wrote critical of conservatives surfaced. He now works for Slate, an online magazine owned by The Washington Post Company.
Weigel said he had spoken to West on various occasions in the past -- including at CPAC but also over the telephone. Weigel said he wasn't positive when and where he interviewed West about Social Security and said he doesn't believe he ever wrote an article or blog about West's comments on Social Security.
When Weigel spotted the ad, he said he called the Klein campaign to ask for their source of evidence. The answer: the transcript of his interview on NPR.
"I'm really confused as to why the campaign would do this," Weigel said. "I think it's an interesting thing to pull to start looking for something. It's weird to quote a reporter's take on a conversation he had and portray it as a quote from the candidate."
Weigel said his full statement about West wasn't a direct quote.
"I remember 'Ponzi scheme' because that is not a word everyone uses,'' he said. "It's a word a lot of Republicans use. I was explaining what the conversation (with West) was about. I wasn't saying 'here was a direct quote about that guy.' To grab those two things and say those are quotes from him is kind of odd."
Weigel said when he spoke to Silverman at Klein's campaign, she asked him if he stood by his reporting. He says he does.
"The only thing I can say is I phrased it that way and everyone was fine with it in February 2010. It definitely is what Allen was thinking,'' Weigel said. However, "that's a weird thing for a campaign to do -- use a reporter paraphrasing something."
Weigel said since the ad surfaced he looked through some old notes but couldn't find the Social Security conversation with West.
We found at least a few articles or blogs Weigel wrote that focused on or mentioned West. Weigel wrote an Aug. 24 profile of the West-Klein race for Slate that didn't mention Social Security with the subheadline: "Florida's Allen West may be crazy, but so far this year, that hasn't hurt Republicans." On his campaign blog, West criticized Weigel who "had the delusional gall to declare me, well, crazy." Weigel also wrote a short piece Feb. 19 on terrorism issues discussed at CPAC for the Washington Independent that mentioned West and a June 23 Right Now Washington Post blog on black Republicans. Neither mentioned West's views on Social Security. We also did a Nexis search for West and Social Security during the past five years and found no articles -- other than a discussion about Klein's ad -- in which West was quoted or paraphrased as stating Social Security is a Ponzi scheme or should be destroyed.
We told Silverman that Weigel said his comments during the NPR interview were not direct quotes but rather him recounting what West said. We asked if that was the campaign's only source of evidence and if they still stood by their ad and why. She wrote: "The campaign stands behind this ad. It is an accurate reflection of Allen West's dangerous and extreme views on Social Security and Medicare."
We asked West's campaign manager Josh Grodin whether West called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" and made the comments about destroying it.
"I don't have time to go through every video," Grodin said in an interview Sept. 14. "I think the onus is on the Klein campaign. .... I would have to go through dozens and dozens of videos."
At PolitFact Florida, we agree that the onus to prove a claim is on the campaign or person making it, but we also do additional research.
Grodin asked us to send him Klein's documentation, so we sent him the NPR transcript.
"The Klein campaign is citing a claim by David Weigel. A guy who has lost all credibility and has no journalistic integrity whatsoever is making a claim? That's pathetic. There is nothing else to say about that."
Again we asked Grodin, did West make the statements?
"Has Allen ever called Social Security a Ponzi scheme? I don't know," Grodin said. "Has he ever said we need to get on the right footing by destroying it? No. That's ridiculous."
So Grodin denies the remark about destroying Social Security, but the campaign isn't confirming or denying the Ponzi scheme comment
On the issues section of West's website, he has a brief description about Social Security:
"The critical aspect of Social Security is that we must restore it to the independent trust fund account. Once the politicians moved it to the general operating account, they used it for their pork barrel spending spree. The fact that we are creating a jobless morass in America means there are less workers paying into the system. This is another reason why we need private sector growth, which in turn creates jobs, which will replenish the Social Security fund."
So how does Klein's claim stack up?
The TV ad said West called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" and said "this country's got to get on sound footing by destroying it." The Klein campaign relied on one source of evidence: an NPR transcript of an interview with a reporter who now says that his description of West was a paraphrase, not a quote -- though he does remember West using the phrase "Ponzi scheme." We don't think a reporter's description of what a candidate says can stand as the sole source for an attack ad, particularly when neither the reporter nor the Klein campaign can find anything he wrote about West's comments on Social Security.
We couldn't find any proof that West said it, and we find Klein's proof insufficient. We rate this claim False.