In the crosshairs of Roger Stone’s pathological attack machine

Roger Stone. Courtesy: WPLG/Local 10 News

Roger Stone was sitting in a Miami Beach condo surrounded by Richard Nixon campaign memorabilia. He was talking about his long-time boss Donald Trump, and saying he would make a great president.  

“He’s already at the pinnacle of success,” Stone said. “He doesn’t need to be president to validate his own ego, which is quite large.”

This was late 2011, nearly four years before Trump took the famous downward escalator ride that set off the most tumultuous period in modern American history, leading Stone first back to prominence, and then to an arrest by the FBI on seven felony counts connected to the Mueller investigation last month. And it was more than a year before Stone would set out to destroy me, personally, with a three-year campaign of hatred and lies that now seems all too familiar.

The Stone I met that day wasn’t the dandy bleach-blond sophisticate he usually portrays on TV; this was a more desperate, down-and-dirty version with frazzled, grayish brown hair sticking straight up from his brow. The wise-guy pinstripe suit was replaced by a raggedy golf shirt stamped with a skull and crossbones, his professional and personal logo. He dabbed the sweat from his face with a handkerchief every couple of minutes with the nervous energy of a caged animal.  

I am an investigative reporter, now freelance, but at the time for the ABC affiliate television station in Miami. I was interviewing him about one of his more infamous clients, a high-rolling South Florida attorney named Scott Rothstein, whose billion-dollar Ponzi scheme had imploded.

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Rothstein, who is now serving a 50-year prison sentence, had given Stone an office in his law firm’s large downtown suite in Fort Lauderdale. He had paid Stone $400,000 as his “political director”, and a federal bankruptcy court was attempting to claw the money back.

“Roger is a guy we keep locked up in his office,” Rothstein told me before his Ponzi scheme collapsed. “I’ll shove food under the door every now and then to feed him, but when something happens and someone needs his help, we’ll open the door.”

Stone reacted to the idea that he should pay the $400,000 back to Rothstein’s victims by putting his first rule of politics—“attack, attack, attack, never defend”—into practice. During that 2011 interview he threatened to scandalize the attorneys and the judge involved with allegations of drug use and corruption.

It was a tactic that had made him, even before the Trump presidency, one of the more notorious political consultants in American history, starting as a teenager in Richard Nixon’s notorious Committee to Re-elect The President (CREEP).

The “satanic Zelig of Republican black ops,” as journalist Mark Ames dubbed him, is often subject to an almost cartoonish rage. It’s the wild anger that prompted him to tweet, after former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson was fired, “DIE BITCH!” To call journalist Roland Martin a “stupid negro.” To urge former CIA chief John Brennan to commit suicide before he dies in prison. To call CNN’s Don Lemon a “cocksucker” among other choice words that finally prompted Twitter to ban Stone altogether. At various points Stone’s often misogynistic and racist rants have prompted CNN, MSNBC and even Fox News to temporarily ban him from appearing on their air.

Behind the scenes, Stone warmly courts the media. Countless political reporters have lapped up his stories like cats at a trough of milk. He’d become a source of mine on Rothstein, whom he turned on in vicious fashion after Rothstein turned himself in and began cooperating with the feds.

It wasn’t until a year later that Stone became an involuntary subject of my journalism and he aimed his pathological attack machine at me.

 

After 25 years of bruising journalism, I’ve come to expect blowback. My stories have led to indictments against several elected officials and the removal of judges from the bench. That work begets enemies. Rothstein swore that he would destroy me and a close associate told me he once asked about having me killed.

But I’d never seen anything like the Stone smear. Understanding Stone has helped me to understand Trump’s own political maneuvers. In fact, Paul Manafort, a long-time Stone lobbying partner, once said that Stone and Trump were so “interconnected” it was hard “to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald.”

Stone’s war with me began after I began to report on another political figure who has gained national notoriety in the past year—Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who was recently removed from office over his agency’s disastrous handling of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Stone helped elect Israel in 2012, using a host of his storied dirty tricks, and the new sheriff returned the favor by hiring three of Stone’s associates on the public dime. None had any business in law enforcement. They included Stone’s personal assistant, his co-author, and a woman named Jen Hobbs, who was then the fiancé of Andrew Miller, Stone’s protégé and political do-boy. Between the three of them, the trio earned roughly $200,000.

After I reported that scandal, and several others involving Sheriff Israel, Stone went on the offensive. His weapon of choice was, at first, the sheriff’s old campaign website, which was called the Broward Bugle. Stone transformed it into a fake news outlet and propaganda tool.

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Miller, a self-described “shit starter” and “political pirate” who’d served as the manager for “Manhattan Madam” Kristin Davis’s Stone-backed campaigns for New York governor and comptroller, was appointed its editor. (Miller, too, is now caught up in the Mueller investigation. He is currently being held in contempt of court after refusing to testify before the grand jury.)

The Bugle launched weekly broadsides against me. It called me “insane,” “demented,” a substance abuser and alcoholic. This didn’t keep me up at night, but it was annoying, especially when people around me brought up the fact that I was regularly being called a lunatic online.

It was just the beginning. Another Stone “rule” concerns those he attacks: “Open multiple fronts on your enemy. He must be confused, and feel besieged on every side.” He held fast to that twisted principle while going after me.

Fake accounts on Facebook—some with facetious names like “Benjamin Gay”—began jumping on posts in which I was mentioned to hurl slurs. Anonymous commenters would appear on local blogs and law enforcement message boards and rant about me, the general theme being that I was an obese and corrupt madman. Stone’s gang, of course, never admitted to being behind these attacks.

“I HATE Bob Norman!” said someone under the name of Lori Switsker. “All he does is slander people and [try] to ruin lives of local Broward residents.” Nobody named Lori Switsker exists in Florida, according to public records.

The Bugle even produced attack videos full of erroneous information aimed at me and my journalism. One included a photograph of my actual house as the backdrop. They were financed at least in part by Sheriff Israel’s federal PAC.

Then one day I got a call from a police lieutenant named Andrew Zettek, from the nearby city of Margate. He directed me to the Bugle site which that day featured what looked like a large police sketch of me with the headline, “Margate Peeper on the Prowl.”

The post alleged “a strange man” was seen “peeping into the windows…of a pregnant woman.” It had been updated to identify me as the culprit and said the police were looking for me. Lt. Zettek said he’d been told of the post by a city commissioner and had determined it was a hoax after speaking with Miller. He just wanted to give me a heads-up it was out there.

The peeper smear began after a photographer and I knocked on the door of Miller’s home in hopes of an interview. Nobody was home, save the pet pig in his backyard, and we left. I reported at the time it was his girlfriend, Hobbs, who drew the police sketch based on an image they’d taken from television.

It somehow got even worse. One morning at the television station I read this bizarre fabricated allegation about myself on Twitter: “There are reports that @WPLGLocal10’s Bob Norman is being investigated for touching a 19 year old male in studio. Resignation soon?”

I wasn’t angry—I was simply astonished they’d gone that far. Perhaps they believed it would be a devastating allegation against a married father of two. Instead it was so preposterous as to make them look even totally ridiculous.

More interesting was the author of the tweet. It was posted by Sam Nunberg, another disciple of Stone’s who was working for Trump at the time. A BuzzFeed article about Trump’s presidential aspirations published in February 2014, four months prior to the Nunberg tweet, described him as the “political right hand man” of Trump, someone who “seems to perfectly embody the Donald’s mischief-making brand of politics.” Nunberg later had an allegedly intoxicated blow out on CNN after he was subpoenaed as part of the Mueller probe. He and Stone have since had a well-known falling out, with Stone posting a video on Instagram alleging Nunberg is a “cocaine addict.”

Naturally, I wanted to confront Stone on camera about his shenanigans. But I couldn’t find him. He’d sold his Miami Beach mansion amid foreclosure actions and had tweeted that he was living “off the grid” in an “undisclosed  location.” Thankfully the IRS knew where he was and sent him a fresh $1.5 million tax lien that revealed his new address in Fort Lauderdale.

With a photographer in tow, I found him at the address in a confrontation that marked the beginning of the end of our “duel,” as the South Florida Business Journal called it. He attacked vociferously in the short term (the Nunberg tweet in fact came two days after the confrontation story aired on TV), but then the onslaught stopped, with only an occasional flare-up.

Courtesy: WPLG/Local 10 News

As the conflict wound down, I developed a theory that Stone doesn’t take it quite as well as he dishes it out. And, contrary to popular belief, he didn’t always relish media attention, as his dogged attempt to shut down my reporting on the sheriff showed. Whatever the reason, I have to admit the confrontation with Stone seemed a personal victory as well as a journalistic one. Attack, attack, attack, indeed.

The day I confronted Stone, in the summer of 2014, he was back in his official uniform, the pin-striped suit and round black sunglasses. When he saw me, he did a quick about face and headed straight back for his front door.

“I’m not going to say anything,” he said. “Fine to see you Bob.”

Before closing the door, he looked up and said, “Hmm, you smell like alcohol.”

I had to hand it to him. Even in full retreat, he managed to get in a false attack. But I knew he had somewhere to go. He wasn’t all dressed up for nothing. And when he came back out a few minutes later, the façade was gone.

This was the same Stone I met in the Miami Beach condo in 2012, full of nervous energy and anger. He lobbed insults as he bee-lined it for his Jaguar and got inside.

We verbally sparred as I stood over the driver’s side window. He said he only spoke to “real journalists” and that I was a “hit man”.

“I thought you were the hit man, Roger,” I said.

“No, you’re the hit man, Bob,” he returned.

Then he lunged. Stone quite literally snarled and lashed outward at the camera in a manner that seemed almost prehistoric, like a lunging pterodactyl. He hit it with his hand before he sped off. My last image I have of Roger Stone that day was his arm jutting from his car window and his middle finger extended all the way down the street.

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Bob Norman has covered crime and corruption in southern Florida for 25 years. He's currently working as a freelance journalist.