AUSTIN, Texas – Opponents of John Kerry have hired a private investigator to gather information aimed at discrediting his military service, say several veterans who served with the Massachusetts Democrat in Vietnam.

Several veterans who have been contacted in recent days accused the private investigator, Tom Rupprath of Rockwall, Texas, of twisting their words to produce misleading and inaccurate accounts that call into doubt the medals Kerry received for his service.

“They’re just distorting things,” said Jim Wasser, who served with Kerry. “They have nothing to go after John Kerry for, so now they’re trying to discredit him.”

Rupprath was hired by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth on the recommendation of Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas public relations executive assisting the anti-Kerry group.

The investigator declined to discuss his work, but Spaeth said he is a former FBI agent assigned to produce an accurate and objective account of how the Democratic presidential candidate earned his combat medals.

“You need to have a third eye that looks at this, somebody who even though you hired him, people know that his integrity is unquestioned and who puts this together the way an investigator would look at it,” said Spaeth, who was a communications adviser in the Reagan White House.

The Kerry campaign accused Swift Boat Veterans of being a politically motivated group with ties to the Republican Party and the Bush administration. The Bush campaign says it is not associated with the group.

Political campaigns routinely gather information on opponents but typically use consultants or campaign aides rather than private investigators, according to political experts.

The hiring of a licensed private investigator to make calls in recent days appeared to suggest that the Kerry foes are preparing a stepped-up assault on his military record as the election approaches.

“This is unusual in that it appears to be push research and not real research,” said Glenn Smith, a Democratic consultant and author of the book “The Politics of Deceit.” “Push research means you have a conclusion and you’re going to talk to people and push their words to reach your conclusion.”

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth held a news conference in May in Washington to level a sharp critique at the senator. Members of the group, including veterans who had served with Kerry, have criticized his anti-war testimony before Congress in 1971 and questioned the circumstances under which he earned three Purple Hearts.

The organization is known as a “527” for the tax code provision under which it is organized. It can raise money for voter drives and issue advertising so long as it does not coordinate with the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.

A spokesman for the organization, John O’Neill, is a lawyer in Houston. He succeeded Kerry as commander of his swift boat in Vietnam and was recruited by the Nixon administration in the 1970s to counter Kerry’s anti-war comments.

O’Neill and other members of the Swift Boat Veterans group have challenged whether Kerry deserved his combat medals and contend he is unfit to serve as commander in chief.

Grant Hibbard, a commander when Kerry reported his first injury in Vietnam said the wound was most likely self-inflicted and the report at the time indicated there was no enemy fire.

Veterans who were on the boat with Kerry give a different version. Pat Runyon said the crew was patrolling north of Cam Ranh Bay the night of Dec. 2, 1968, when Kerry and fellow crewman Bill Zaledonis spotted Viet Cong guerrillas massed on a beach and began firing.

He said Kerry was subsequently treated for a wound to the arm, which led to his first Purple Heart.

Runyon said he recounted the episode for the private investigator because he gave the impression he was working for an independent or pro-Kerry veterans group. But Ruynon said he was distressed when the investigator sent him an inaccurate synopsis of their conversation suggesting that the wound was likely caused by a flare.

“I have no problems with the truth as long as they put it out the way it happened,” he said. “But I told him I didn’t want him to use it, didn’t like it and felt he’d missed the whole feeling of the mission.”

Rupprath would say only that his investigation is ongoing.

“We have not talked about this publicly because I don’t think we have a full understanding,” he said. “We’re not making any accusations until I think we have them truly buttoned up and can be presented in as authentic and credible a manner as possible.”



(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News.

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AP-NY-07-12-04 1804EDT


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