State lawmaker acknowledges making anonymous online posts, apologizes
HARRISBURG — A state lawmaker on Thursday acknowledged making “anonymous” and “fictitious” online posts attacking constituents who support shale-gas drilling in Washington County and apologized to two people for any “offensive or hurtful” actions.
Residents and the industry group Energy In Depth accused Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, of using aliases to call his critics “mouth breathers” and to call industry supporters, including senior citizens, “hucksters.”
White explained himself by blaming drilling companies and pro-industry groups for targeting him with “misleading and personal attacks.”
“These attacks have included anonymous or fictitious posts on various websites,” White, 34, said in an emailed statement. “On occasion, I have exercised my First Amendment rights and responded in kind, which was an error in judgment that I regret.
“To be clear, I did not use government resources while posting comments on these sites.”
Constituents suspected for months that White authored online posts under pseudonyms. Two primary targets said White grew increasingly angry over the years. They criticized his apology as pitiful and insincere.
“It's just crazy,” said Janice Gibbs, 64, of Cecil, a retired waitress who cares for her ill husband and 2-year-old granddaughter. “It was a shock that he would go to this, (that) a public official who's an educated man would go to this depth of harassing people when he doesn't have to.
“He can debate and have his opinion. And he doesn't have to bash his constituents.”
Ethics experts said it appears White did nothing illegal, noting that state legislators set their own rules for computer usage even though the state's administrative and executive branches block employees from sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
White's actions don't amount to criminal or ethical misconduct unless they significantly benefited his campaign or personal finances, said John J. Contino, former executive director of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission.
Yet Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg citizen activist, said White “crossed the line and potentially engaged in cyberbullying.”
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, plans to talk to White about the matter. He said House officials determined White did not post from a state computer.
“(White) acknowledges his statement is unacceptable, and it is,” Dermody said. “He acknowledges he made some mistakes.”
In one post, White, using a false name, called a woman a “local mole” for the gas industry.
“I apologize to Janice Gibbs and Donald Roessler for any action I've taken that may have been offensive or hurtful and I will be extending a private invitation to meet with them to discuss our viewpoints face-to-face, in an effort to find common ground and foster a more professional and respectful level of communication,” White's statement said.
A House-passed bill, pending in the Senate this session, would make cyberbullying a crime. White voted for it.
In 2012, White cast the only vote against a similar bill on the floor, records show. That bill died in the Senate.
“He voted no in committee,” said Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks County, its sponsor. “He gave me a hard time about it in Judiciary.”
Watson said her bill would make it a crime to impersonate someone online and attempt to intimidate or harass in a “deliberate or malicious” manner. She said she believes if her bill was law, “you might be able to make a case he was harassing that individual.” It would not be a crime to use a false name for satire.
Deron Gabriel, a South Fayette commissioner and White supporter, blamed some in the gas industry for personal attacks on White. The vitriol undermines the policy debate surrounding the state's ongoing gas boom, he said.
“I don't really like the personal attacks (from both sides),” Gabriel said. “And all the animosity, it seems to distract from the whole issue of keeping the community safe. I'll certainly look into (White's comments). Jesse's been an effective state representative, and I would look for that to continue.”
The Trib reported in 2011 that White once enjoyed a cozy relationship with Cecil-based Range Resources Inc., asking for a ride on a corporate jet to a Super Bowl game and complaining that the drilling company didn't give him enough campaign money, according to emails Range released.
Range said it did so to expose a lawmaker who tried to strong-arm the company. White claimed he was the victim of a smear campaign by the company. He declined to release his own emails.
Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, who chairs the House Republican Campaign Committee, said White's actions are “another example of a disturbing trend of conduct that the voters of the 46th District will have to determine if they find acceptable.”
White, an attorney elected in 2006, represents parts of Washington, Allegheny and Butler counties.