Dan East, a New Mexico businessman, was on his way back from a forum in Tampa, Fla. Caroline George, a veteran of conservative politics, was returning from a congressional briefing in Washington, DC. They met on a plane on the runway at Sky Harbor International Airport, chatted politics and, as they say, one thing led to another: Within weeks, East was running for Congress in New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, with George as his paid campaign strategist.
“I was the first person to stand up and support this man,” George tells SFR of East, who went on to win the Republican nomination. “I thought he was a man of character.”
But now George is standing against East. As the candidate prepares to battle against the Democratic Party’s nominee, Ben Ray Lujan, and Independent Carol Miller for the seat currently occupied by US Rep. Tom Udall, D-NM, East also faces a courtroom battle. George is suing her former employer for $25,000 she says he owes her.
In her complaint, filed in the Second Judicial District Court, George alleges that although East paid her $18,000 for services and expenses during the first two months of his campaign, he stills owes her for more than 200 hours worth of work she says she conducted with an “open account” agreement or, in layman’s terms, a blank check based on good faith.
East’s campaign attorney, Shari Cordova, argues in East’s filed response that there was no such agreement and alleges that George took advantage of East because he was “new to the political arena and had no prior experience running a campaign.”
In a phone interview with SFR, East calls George’s lawsuit “frivolous,” but refrained from commenting on the details because the case is still pending.
Nevertheless, East admits that this is one of many pitfalls that more politically savvy candidates would know how to avoid.
And, as the case moves into arbitration, a settlement could determine the future of his campaign’s finances. If George wins her $25,000, it could gouge East’s resources, since East raised only slightly more than $51,000 leading up to the Republican primary; his Democratic opponent, Lujan, raised more than 10 times that in the same period.
Lujan’s campaign has yet to use the case to its advantage, yielding that right instead to the Democratic Party of New Mexico.
“Dan East has such little regard for his own campaign that he won’t even pay the people he hires to run it,” DPNM Executive Director John Geise says in an e-mailed statement.
East denies the Democratic Party’s spin, asserting that all “legitimate bills” have been paid to his workers and his campaign has no outstanding debt. To discredit George’s suit, East’s attorney forwarded to SFR news articles from The Washington Post and the Concord Monitor that allege George overcharged her clients when she worked as a lawyer in New Hampshire.
According to the articles, George was under suspicion for removing tens of thousands of dollars from the trusts of her clients without their explicit permission. She was disbarred by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in December 2007.
In her defense, George says the court’s ruling was in retaliation for her whistle-blowing on judicial misconduct within the New Hampshire Court system, some of which will be published in her forthcoming book, Sneaky Judge Tricks.
George says she disclosed all this to East before accepting the job.
“I provided him with the Concord Monitor story, which was to be confidential, by way of disclosure, so it would not hurt his campaign,” George says. “To the extent that Mr. East and his attorney are engaging in a gratuitous smear campaign to avoid paying his bill, I find it reprehensible and irresponsible, especially for a man hoping to represent over 600,000 people who, in the majority, are lower income constituents.”
Back in New Hampshire, George was known as Caroline Douglas, a powerful woman in East Coast Republican circles by way of marriage to US Rep. Charles Douglas, R-NH. The couple made headlines when they had a very public divorce case known locally, according to the Post, as “the divorce from Hell.”
George, though, equates her experiences as a political spouse to that of Hillary Clinton—except that she is a conservative who is proud of helping Pat Buchanan win the 1992 Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire.
She says she prefers the “stealth” method of upsetting elections by running little-known candidates, and that’s what drew her to East, who ran in the primary against Marco Gonzales, a Republican endorsed by the revered US Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM.
The state and national Republican committees had all but conceded CD-3 before the race began, but that’s just the way George likes it.
“It just means you do it yourself, which is why I put in so many hundreds of hours,” George says. “It’s true campaigning. There’s a beauty to it…You just have to drive your tail off.”
George wrote out a grassroots strategy that she says would have helped East swoop under the radar to victory in the primary—which he won—and the general election. In the filed response to her complaint, East’s lawyer calls George’s plan “poorly done and largely useless.”
“It is disingenuous for Mr. East to claim I provided no value to him,” George says. “As a political novice…[East] didn’t know the planks and platform and didn’t have a single clue how to put together a national campaign, and had no one to speak on his behalf or show him the ropes and introduce him to national retail politics.”
George hasn’t decided whether to sit out the rest of the election, saying that she will only support true conservatives and Republican presumptive presidential nominee John McCain is not one. Instead, George says she has offered to help out US Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM, and is considering helping Christine O’Donnell, a Republican in Delaware, challenge US Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., for his seat. But she’ll miss the CD-3 race.
“CD-3 is the Cinderella stepchild of New Mexico,” George says. “It’s a pearl, a jewel. I think it’s easier almost to win in CD-3, except it’s physically demanding. It takes more grassroots effort, but you can win with less money and more time. So, if you’re a novice, that’s what you generally have a lot of.”
But depending how long the case goes and what’s decided, East may find himself with even less of both.