White, according to news reports at the time, was speaking about the increased political clout African Americans and Latinos could have if they worked together as a coalition. That was February. By the fall, Sirota was hired as the press secretary for Bernie Sanders, then in the House. He was hired by Sanders’s then–chief of staff, Jeff Weaver, who went on to manage Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign and remains a senior adviser to the 2020 campaign.
On Friday morning, in response to inquiries from The Atlantic about his 1999 firing, Sirota acknowledged his role in helping create the bogus site. “I deeply regret being involved in this whole incident. I am absolutely ashamed that it happened, and I have felt genuinely terrible about this for 20 years. Even though I was a junior political staffer, I should have known better, and I certainly do today,” Sirota responded by email.
Sirota did not acknowledge his role at the time of his firing. Neither Sanders nor his campaign responded when asked for comment.
Sirota did not respond to questions of whether he had told Sanders’s House office in 1999 about the full circumstances that led to his firing, or whether he believes his behavior then fits with the values that Sanders is speaking about in his current presidential campaign.
Through website-registration records found at the time, the site was traced back to a friend of Sirota’s from their student days at Northwestern University, under the fake name of Brock Landers, a reference to the porn-movie name used by Mark Wahlberg’s character in the movie Boogie Nights. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, an old biography on the Northwestern website listed Sirota’s online aliases as “webman,” “crowbar,” “politicaljunkee,” and “dc-dave.” The two had graduated the year before. Sirota’s degree was in journalism.
“People were shocked, folks were certainly upset,” said the former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter when I spoke with him on Thursday night. Nutter was a city councilman at the time who went on to beat Evans in the 2007 mayor’s race. Evans did not respond to requests for comment, but Nutter told me he doesn’t believe Evans would have approved of the creation of the bogus website. “It was clearly out of bounds and did not represent Dwight’s values, and his mind-set,” said Nutter, who is also African American and won citywide support across racial lines. The creator of the site, Nutter said, “was really a person who did not understand the racial context of Philadelphia and made a massive miscalculation.”
The White campaign discovered the fraud after being alerted to the existence of the imitation site before it had even created a real website of its own—then realized the site was being promoted using the same list of reporters’ addresses that the Evans campaign was using. “It looked like a new low in politics that really was designed to get at the issue of race in the city of Philadelphia, and potentially undermine John White’s appeal to white voters in the city,” a former aide to the White campaign said on Friday morning, reflecting on the incident.