Plagiarism allegations in politics: Montana's senator and three other cases

Whether or not Sen. John Walsh pays a political price for the controversy, it turns out he is in good company among political figures who recently have been accused of plagiarism.

Lauren Burke/AP
Sen. John Walsh (D) of Montana (r.) and his son Michael leave the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, after a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony with Vice President Joe Biden, Feb. 11, 2014. Walsh's thesis written for the US Army War College contains unattributed passages that appear to be taken word-for-word from previously published papers. The Democrat is running to keep the seat he was appointed to in February. Walsh faces Republican US Rep. Steve Daines on Nov. 4.

When Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana resigned in February to take up the ambassadorship to China, Democrats in the state were left scrambling to find a viable candidate to fill his shoes.

After popular, eccentric former Gov. Brian Schweitzer turned down the opportunity, operatives opted for Lt. Gov. John Walsh, a political newcomer and career serviceman who Democrats hoped would appeal to the state’s deep red electorate with his military bona fides.

In February, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) appointed Mr. Walsh interim senator, giving him the incumbent advantage in the November race. But Walsh’s campaign suffered an apparent setback this week after at least part of those military credentials that Democrats had been emphasizing were called into question.

According to a report Wednesday in The New York Times, at least one quarter of Walsh’s final paper required for a master’s degree he received in 2007 from the United States Army War College was plagiarized – some of it improperly cited, much of it lifted directly from other sources.

That thesis had serious ramifications for Walsh’s career: In 2007, a military evaluation said the paper had “bolstered” Walsh’s prospects to become the adjutant general of Montana’s National Guard, a position that helped lead to his being elected lieutenant governor.

At the end of the 14-page paper, titled “The Case for Democracy as a Long Term National Strategy,” Walsh laid out six recommendations in about 800 words, all of which are taken almost directly from a document from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Walsh also appeared to lift passages verbatim, and without attribution, from a 1998 paper written by Harvard scholar Sean Lynn-Jones.

Seemingly contradictory statements made by Walsh and staffers on the matter have exacerbated the controversy. When first confronted about the potential plagiarism by The Times on Tuesday, Walsh denied the allegations.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

On Wednesday, however, campaign officials backtracked when they declined to dispute the alleged plagiarism, and offered as a reason for his actions post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.

Whatever Walsh’s motivations, the latest controversy has complicated a campaign that can’t afford many complications: the nonpartisan Cook Political Report has put the November race in the “Lean Red” category, noting that the senator has yet to gain widespread name recognition or a competitively stocked war chest.

According to the latest Federal Electoral Commission filings, Walsh had about $700,000 cash-on-hand, versus $2.2 million for his Republican rival, US Rep. Steve Daines.

Whether or not Walsh pays a political price for the controversy, it turns out Walsh is in good company among modern political figures who have been accused of plagiarism. Below are three of them – two who continue to thrive politically, and one who saw his career destroyed:

Joe Biden: In September 1987, while running for president, Mr. Biden was accused by The New York Times and the Des Moines Register of lifting lines from a May speech by Neil Kinnock, a British Labour Party leader. Later that year the San Jose Mercury News accused Biden of lifting rhetoric from speeches by former Senator Robert Kennedy, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and former President John Kennedy. During the controversy, media also reported that Biden was forced to retake a class at the Syracuse University College of Law in 1965 after copying lines from an academic article in the Fordham Law Review.

Though Biden was considered a leading contender for the Democratic nomination in the early stages of the campaign, the plagiarism controversy hurt his already flagging candidacy, causing him to withdraw within weeks of the allegations.

Rand Paul: In November, the Republican senator from Kentucky was accused of lifting a stump speech he made on behalf of Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Viriginia, from the Wikipedia page of the 1997 science fiction film “Gattaca.”

Senator Paul’s support for Mr. Cuccinelli led to further accusations of impropriety in a February lawsuit he filed against President Obama protesting the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of data. A spokeswoman for Bruce Fein, a former Reagan administration attorney who drafted the suit with Paul, said Mr. Fein was shocked when his name was replaced with Cuccinelli’s at the time of the lawsuit’s filing.

Vaughn Ward: A Republican candidate for Idaho’s 1st US Congressional District in 2010, Mr. Ward, who was deemed a ‘Young Gun’ by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, was caught lifting portions of a speech from a 2004 address at the Democratic National Convention by none other than then-State Sen. Barack Obama.

To add insult to injury, the Spokane Spokesman-Review later revealed that Ward had taken five of the 10 official position statements on his website “word-for-word” from the websites of other congressmen.

Soon after, an article in Talking Points Memo asked if Ward was the “Worst Candidate Ever,” and Salon’s Alex Pareene declared him the “most incompetent candidate in America.”

Ward did not win.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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