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Ally Miller aide linked to imitation news website; alter ego posing as reporter

Site goes 'poof' after apparent editor questioned

A communications aide for Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller has been linked to a pretend news site whose "editor" is using a false name. Timothy DesJarlais, who is also running for the Marana School Board, was apparently posting for the "Arizona Daily Herald" while being paid during public meetings.

DesJarlais, a 19-year-old University of Arizona student who has frequently called himself "Jim Falken" online, claimed Tuesday night that he was not behind the website. Although DesJarlais said the site was "probably a prank" by a friend, he repeatedly refused to provide the name of the supposed other person responsible.

Internet accounts connected to the "Herald" were scrubbed quickly after the interview, as were the other accounts belonging to DesJarlais mentioned during our conversation.

A "Jim Falken" claimed to be the editor of the "Arizona Daily Herald," a purported news website, and solicited comments via email on Miller's transportation plan from other candidates for the Board of Supervisors, including Republicans John Winchester — who is challenging Miller in the primary — and Steve Christy. The fictitious Falken also contacted sitting supervisors via email.

Miller did not respond to TucsonSentinel.com's request for her to comment on her employee's apparent masquerading as a reporter.

DesJarlais, a Republican who lives on the Northwest Side near Thornydale and Magee, is also one of the organizers gathering signatures for an initiative that would change Tucson's elections to ward-only.

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DesJarlais was interviewed via phone Tuesday night, in a conversation filled with long pauses before he responded.

He said first that he did not know what the "Arizona Daily Herald" was, and that he had not registered that domain name.

"Oooh, I think I know what's going on here .... somebody is impersonating me," he said when pressed about the website and the connections to his online identity. "That's what's happening."

He then said that one of his friends had been "talking about politics and becoming a reporter" and had mentioned creating "his own news website."

"Oh, I wouldn't want to disclose that person's identity to a newspaper," he said when asked who that friend might be.

When asked if the friend who he said he suspected of playing a prank on him could call me to substantiate that claim — as DesJarlais refused to provide a name — the Miller aide asked for my phone number (despite having already returned my calls several times in a game of phone tag) and wrote it down, saying he would give it to the friend.

No call was forthcoming.

DesJarlais acknowledged the many connections between him and his online persona of "Jim Falken."

He said that his alter ego wasn't common knowledge among his friends, but that "one of them might have heard of it."

Websites scrubbed

Just moments after he was interviewed by me, the azdailyherald.com website was taken offline, as was the Facebook page set up for the sham news outlet. Another website that DesJarlais acknowledged was his was also immediately removed from the Internet, and a video he posted posing as Falken was removed from public view. Other online postings that linked him with the Falken persona were also quickly culled.

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Earlier, a photograph posted on the "Herald" Facebook page Tuesday showed that day's Board of Supervisors meeting from the vantage point of the seats occupied by DesJarlais and another Miller aide during the meeting. That posting was removed Tuesday afternoon.

District 4 Supervisor Ray Carroll, with whom Miller has repeatedly clashed despite their both being Republicans, and others present at the meeting noted that DesJarlais was sitting with Miller's executive assistant, Sherry Potter, throughout the meeting, and that the two were passing a smartphone back and forth.

DesJarlais acknowledged taking a photograph during the supervisors' meeting.

"Was that taken down?," he said quickly when initially asked about the photo. "Do you have a screenshot of it?"

After a pause, he said, "Yeah, I heard something earlier about a photo... but I don't really know anything about that."

He then said that he had taken a photo on his phone during the meeting.

He said he "sent it to my friend. He asked where I was and I texted it to him." DesJarlais said he did not post it on the "Herald" Facebook page.

Also pulled down Tuesday evening were a pair of tweets from the "Herald" about the then-ongoing vote count in Tuesday's special election. DesJarlais' interview with TucsonSentinel.com began with a brief conversation about the tallies being released. The tweets vanished soon after.

The "Herald" website was hosted on WordPress.com, and now redirects to a generic page on that site. Although the website was pulled from the Internet, the azdailyherald.com domain name remains registered and is not for sale. Another of DesJarlais' sites, "Tucson Trumpet," is also hosted on WordPress.com. That site, which includes his real name and phone number, is another purported news website, with just a single post about a Northwest Side grocery store posted last September.

A Twitter account with the same name has only two tweets: one linking to the grocery post and another from May 2015 that referenced Supervisor Miller. That account features the slogan, "Heralding the Right Tucson News 4 You."

Neither Miller nor her staff responded to a request for comment about the "Arizona Daily Herald." The supervisor told Tim Steller of the Daily Star that DesJarlais denied to her that he had sent out emails as Falken.

DesJarlais, who recently attended Pima Community College before beginning his studies at the UA in political science and communication, reportedly did not show up for work at Miller's office Wednesday or Thursday, multiple sources said.

An extensive public records request that could show connections between Miller's office and the "Herald" was filed by TucsonSentinel.com on Wednesday, but officials could not provide any of the data we asked for on a quick timetable.

One of Miller's political opponents, fellow Republican Winchester, called the evident involvement of her staffer "a new low."

The supposed editor of the sockpuppet website, Falken, messaged Pima County staff May 12, asking to be added to a distribution list for press releases, saying, "I am the editor of newly founded paper (sic)."

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Falken also asked to be added to the email lists of other supervisors last week, including Ramón Valadez, Richard Elías and Ray Carroll.

Internet records show that the azdailyherald.com domain was registered on May 7, with that registration updated on May 12, but the identity of the person behind the site was hidden from public view by the registrant.

Falken sent emails to various political candidates on Sunday, asking for comment on Miller's road plan, including Winchester, Christy and Marla Closen, a Republican who has been allied with Miller who, like Christy, is seeking to fill Carroll's seat.

Beth Borozan, Christy's campaign manager, checked out the website.

"All I found was a empty WordPress shell ... with a cloaked owner," she said. "I advised Steve not to reply."

The site's quick disappearance after DesJarlais was questioned about it "must be a record for a local 'news' outlet," she said. "Poof!"

Falken flees the coop

DesJarlais, who has been a communications assistant for Miller since February, has posted numerous times on the Internet as Falken, mainly in conjunction with his imaginary nation of the "Democratic Republic of Dido Place," which is named after the street on which DesJarlais lives. Under both names, DesJarlais has blogged about the neighborhood-sized fantasy country, posting about executive orders and other actions by both "President DesJarlais" and "President Falken."

Those posts include a Youtube video of "President Falken's Thanksgiving Address - 2014," featuring DesJarlais speaking to the camera, as well as the country's inclusion in the "Cyber Nations Wiki," a listing of other imaginary territories. That video was among the material quickly pulled from the Internet after the aide to the Republican supervisor was interviewed.

DesJarlais told me that he used "Jim Falken" as an online identity numerous times, including on a "Falken for Governor" website that he said was created for a class at Pima Community College. That site was also taken down Tuesday after the interview.

'Deceptive'

Making up a country is fine for a hobby, but journalism experts raise their eyebrows when a government employee conjures up a purported news site.

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"If he's creating a website and trying to hide his identity, while he's promoting an elected official whom he's beholden to ... that's deceptive," said David Cuillier, the director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism.

"If that's the case, he's not acting as a journalist," said Cuillier, the former head of the national Society of Professional Journalists, which sets the ethical standards for the industry. "People have a hard enough time deciding who to trust."

"We have a long history of people expressing themselves under pseudonyms," Cuillier said, "but he's not being a journalist — he's not independent — if he's doing this for his boss."

Falken's online biography claimed that he studied journalism at the UA.

Winchester, who's challenging Miller in the GOP primary in District 1, said he was "not surprised" by the evident connections between DesJarlais and the impersonation of a reporter.

"The Miller camp has already taken actions like threatening my volunteers and making false accusations against me to the Attorney General's Office, but this is a new low," he said Tuesday night.

Winchester is among the candidates who was emailed by Falken, asking for responses to questions about Miller's outline for a road repair plan.

That email, sent Sunday, asked in part, "do you agree with Supervisor Miller's solution or do you have your own solution to fix Pima County roads, and if so, what would that be?" It was signed with Falken's name, styling him as "Senior Reporter/Chief Editor," and sent from editor@azdailyherald.com.

While it's not clear why a Miller staffer would set up a fake news website, Facebook page and Twitter account, there also appears to be no motivation for a supposed friend of DesJarlais to concoct the web of accounts. The website was taken down before any posts were apparently ever made on it, one of the only posts on the Facebook page was deleted Tuesday afternoon, and the "Herald" tweets were deleted directly after our interview.

Winchester and Carroll said the evidence points to the Miller camp attempting to "catfish" political opponents, but they were caught out.

A worked-up Carroll said, "You've got a fake reporter, saying he's working for a fake newspaper."

"They're trying to distract the public from the manipulation that's going on with the Republican primary," said Carroll, who announced earlier this year he wouldn't seek another term.

Winchester said he considered the situation to be "using taxpayer-paid county employees to create an elaborate scheme, pretending to be a journalist for the purposes of deceitfully getting information regarding my campaign. This is just the latest in a long line of bizarre Ally antics, such as pretending to fall into a pothole, (and) calling 911 on real reporters."

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Latest comments on this storyRead all 4 »

4
22 comments
May 23, 2016, 2:04 pm
-1 +2

AZ voter: So you approve of your tax dollars paying someone to troll the internet and impersonate others (doesn’t matter who)? He was getting paid to do this by an elected official. It SHOULD kill his future job prospects - unless Trump hires him as his communications director then it might qualify him.

3
3 comments
May 20, 2016, 3:36 pm
-0 +1

*a long

(auto-correct fail)

2
3 comments
May 20, 2016, 3:35 pm
-1 +5

Dylan,

This comment is along time coming: You continue to do great work. You serve a vital role within our community and we all are better for it. 

Thank you and please continue to keep setting the bar for journalistic standards in Pima County. 

To paraphrase Socrates, you are our Sonoran desert gadfly.

Best,
RM

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The Twitter page of the 'Arizona Daily Herald.'