I’m sure everyone has heard that Russia launched a massive social media campaign of misinformation during the 2016 election.
What locals may not know is that an Israeli spy group was doing the exact same thing in Tulare.
Shocked? Dr. Benny Benzeevi, Dr. Parmod Kumar and Carlton Jones aren’t.
In the February 18 and 25 issue of The New Yorker magazine it says how Dr. Benzeevi hired a private Israeli intelligence company, Psy-Group, to take whatever means necessary to defeat the recall effort against Dr. Kumar in July of 2017.
“Psy-Group’s slogan” said the magazine, “was ‘Shape Reality,’ and its techniques included the use of elaborate false identities to manipulate its targets. Psy-Group was part of a new wave of private intelligence firms that recruited from the ranks of Israel’s secret services—self-described ‘private Mossads.’ The most aggressive of these firms seemed willing to do just about anything for their clients.”
The motivation for the Psy-Group was that if they had been successful in Tulare the company would have used it as a launching pad for higher-paying clients in bigger and more expensive campaigns in the United States.
The motivation for Dr. Benzeevi was that if he did not retain control of the hospital board he and Dr. Kumar would lose tens of millions of dollars.
The New Yorker article is so long it is spread out over two print editions, only one of which will be on the stands at press time.
The article is also on our Facebook page, but for those of you who do not have time to read 8,742 words about a complicated conspiracy I will sum it up here.
The New Yorker wrote:
“On April 22, 2017, Benzeevi arrived in Tel Aviv. He checked into the Dan Hotel, across from the city’s seafront promenade. ….. Then Benzeevi would meet with Burstien, who would walk him through the company’s proposed campaign to keep Kumar on the hospital board. …..Benzeevi had already received a draft of Psy-Group’s battle plan, contained in an e-mail that was password-protected and marked ‘privileged & confidential.’ The proposal assured Benzeevi that Psy-Group’s activities would be ‘fully disconnected’ from him and his hospital-management company.
“To close the deal, Burstien called in Ram Ben-Barak, one of his biggest hired guns. Lanky and charismatic, Ben-Barak looked like someone from Mossad central casting. A former company employee said that Benzeevi “appeared to like the idea that someone from Mossad would be on his side.” Before Benzeevi flew back to California, he was given the number of a bank account where he could wire Psy-Group the fee for the Tulare campaign—two hundred and thirty thousand dollars.”
According to The New Yorker The Psy-Group organized in 2014 and started with European clients.
They used computers at libraries or Internet cafés to cover up its on line activities and created dummy Gmail accounts, unattributed Web sites, fake companies and Avatars or fake personae.
They created fake think tanks then used avatars to spread fake reports compiled by the think tank. The Avatars were so convincing, said The New Yorker, that they would be quoted in mainstream media.
Against this backdrop, Alex Gutierrez, a member of the Citizens for Hospital Accountability, convinced his mom, Senovia Gutierrez, to run for the hospital board to replace Dr. Kumar in the event he is recalled.
From the voter’s view point it looked like an energetic mother-son duo doing their civic duty running for an extremely down ballot hospital board seat. What we didn’t see was how scary running for office was about to get for both of them.
Mr. Gutierrez was threatened by then-Mayor Carlton Jones, who was a good friend of Dr. Kumar, to watch his back, and his house and car burned to the ground in two suspicious fires.
Ms. Gutierrez could have lost her job because of the smear campaign.
The New Yorker reported, “A former Psy-Group official told me, ‘I never initiated any physical fire on any project whatsoever.’”
Mr. Gutierrez is not 100% convinced.
To defeat the recall the Psy-Group created websites such as Tularespeaks.com, Tulareleaks.com, and Draintulareswamp.com that started appearing in June of 2017.
Campaign flyers appeared on door handles ridiculing Ms. Gutierrez for having zero experience and articles appeared questioning her ability to manage finances because of a 2003 bankruptcy. Photographs were taken of her house, making it appear as though she were taking bribes.
An Avatar was created to post comments on social media alleging the bribes and questioning whether Ms. Gutierrez was an American citizen.
Little did anyone know at the time that an international spy group was paid $230,000 to smear Ms. Gutierrez’ reputation and intimidate her son into submission.
But the Valley Voice had its suspicions.
In a July 6 article by Dave Adalian he writes, “The supporters of Dr. Parmod Kumar appear to be playing loose with the truth” when noting “the appearance of a suspicious website” aimed at Ms. Gutierrez.
“The website appears intended to generate drama where none exists,” said Mr. Adalian.
“I guess you might see that in a big city or on a national level,” our own writer and webmaster Tony Maldonado told The New Yorker. “But to see it in a small town, about a hospital board in Tulare, is just insane.”
Dr. Kumar’s campaign advisor said of Psy-Group’s tactics, “It didn’t really hurt Senovia,” McKinney said. “It made it look like she was being harassed. It hurt Kumar. It backfired.”
Backfire it did. Dr. Kumar was recalled by 80% of the vote and Ms. Gutierrez was elected to take his place.
Tulare Resident and rabble- rouser, Elaine Hollingsworth said, “I believe Senovia and her son Alex did a fine job in standing up to all the threats and nastiness they endured. Perhaps part of it is due to the fact that Senovia having come from Mexico desiring a better life in the States felt she couldn’t sit back and watch the corruption in her community in her beloved new country.
Again, Psy-Group failed because people with guts stood up and lead the charge and they succeeded at the voting both!”
Why do you think the Russians were successful in their meddling in our national elections but the Psy-Group was such a resounding failure in Tulare?
I asked this question to Xavier Avila and Jim Reeves, two politically astute Tulare County residents on the opposite side of the aisle.
Before answering my question Mr. Avila gave me a thorough tongue lashing for suggesting that President Trump won the election because of Russian meddling.
“It’s really an insult to us Trump supporters to say the Russian’s were successful because for us the Russians had absolutely nothing to do with our voting for Trump . For us the thought of Hilary Clinton being President was enough but for me it wasn’t just a vote against someone I didn’t want . It was because I believe Trump could actually do some good things . So far he has been successful. “
After Mr. Avila got that off of his chest he proceeded with some astute observations.
“The people of Tulare already had their minds made up . Measure I was soundly defeated. Then Kevin Northcraft and Mike Jamaica both won their elections to the Hospital Board by huge margins (against incumbents and supporters of Dr. Benzeevi.) Those elections were long before the Psy-Group was hired. The trend to clean up the Hospital Board was there.
“So when the Psy-Group started appearing on FB we knew something different was happening but we citizens did a good job countering them . I think they didn’t expect how effective we were. We called out many fake accounts. Now with the Mossad Agent for Hire it makes perfect sense.
“I do believe the dirty tricks backfired on Benzeevi. Kumar was recalled by 81%.
“They thought we were just a bunch of small town hicks that could be easily fooled. They were completely wrong . Tulare People are smart and in the end The People of Tulare voted to pass Measure H by 88 percent.
“This just goes to show, that people are not going to be swayed by gimmicks. The Truth is by far more effective.”
Mr. Reeves said, “Good question. I wondered that myself.
“I think there may have been several reasons. One might be the money and resources dedicated to the effort. Russia had the resources of the GRU (foreign intelligence service of Russia) and Putin behind them, and very likely assistance from Trump’s campaign or supporters. Psy-Group had only the $230,000 from Benzeevi, and probably only dedicated a small number of people not familiar with Tulare to the effort. Being a relatively new company, how much of that money actually went to the Tulare operation, rather than just keeping the lights on and the Internet bill paid?
“One wonders about what assistance they received from locals? Did that assistance, if any, help or hinder?
“We could be generous and say the local citizenry was too smart to be taken in by the tactics of Psy-Group (but then they do keep re-electing Nunes, so there’s that).
“Or perhaps the people motivated enough to actually vote in something as obscure as a hospital board recall were interested enough to question something that came across their Facebook feeds.
“Whatever happened, it’s clear that Psy-Group either targeted the wrong demographic in their campaign and missed the thousand voters that made the decision, or their tactics were so lame that it didn’t matter.”
In ironies of ironies, in 2012 Dr. Kumar, along with a partner, was in negotiations to buy the Valley Voice.
Just think if he did?
We would not be writing about a recall election or Israeli spy group, because Dr. Benzeevi would have most likely taken possession of the hospital, and it would probably be closed because he doesn’t pay his bills.
And there isn’t anything Tulareans could have done about it because they would not have known until it was too late.
As it was, Ms. Gutirrez got on the board just under the wire before Dr. Benzeevi started selling off all of the hospital’s assets or taking out huge loans against them.
In short, local journalism is vital.
As pointed out in The New Yorker, the same model was used in the Russian meddling in the national elections as in Tulare–but we caught them.
We caught Dr. Benzeevi when he changed the language on the Measure I from what the board voted on to wording making it easier to take hospital funds.
We reported on the suspicious fires, fake websites, and the phony break-ins of the Yes on I campaign office.
While the VTD did report on the hospital, as a high official in Tulare County administration said, the VTD was always trying to do catch up.
When The New Yorker did their research on the recall election they used the Valley Voice as their main resource. They interviewed our webmaster, Maldonado, who has been reporting on the hospital with the sophistication and grit of any Washington Post reporter.
But the saga is not over as the legal fallout of what Dr. Benzeevi did is now playing out in the courts.
We have not let up on our reporting but unfortunately the Visalia Times-Delta just let go their point man on the hospital, Luis Hernandez.
Buying the Valley Voice would have been the best investment Dr. Kumar ever made.
Which brings us full circle to The New Yorker article in asking: Why was Russia successful in their misinformation campaign but Israel was not successful in Tulare?
Because of local journalism.