The race for Maricopa County attorney reached a new level of zaniness this week, just days before the election, as two campaigns traded shots about the origin of an anonymous, 4-month-old Web site.
The site, titled "ACLU Tim Will Say Anything to Get Elected," first appeared in June, targeting Democratic candidate Tim Nelson long before he won his party's primary.
The construction was crude. It showed a doctored photo of Nelson sporting a Pinocchio nose and hat and featured a running blog accusing him of lying throughout the campaign.
Though the site's creators were anonymous, Nelson's staff noted that the content routinely mirrored the talking points from the campaign of County Attorney Andrew Thomas, a Republican. Accusations sometimes appeared on the blog before they became part of the campaign.
"The consensus was that the messaging was so on target that it had to be somebody fairly high up in the Thomas campaign," said Nelson's campaign manager, Josh Kilroy.
The site apparently became such an irritant for Nelson that he commissioned an in-depth study in July to figure out who was behind it.
Just this week, Nelson's camp released the results of that study. It accused Thomas and two of his aides of being the authors.
If true, the Democrats believe it amounts to a violation of election spending laws, which require campaigns to disclose who produces and pays for propaganda.
Neither Thomas nor Rachel Alexander, one of the aides, responded to requests for comment. The other aide, Barnett Lotstein, said Thursday he "never participated in any way" with the site.
"The only thing that I know about that blog is what I read on that blog," Lotstein said.
But he added that he supports what it professes. "There's nothing on it that's untrue," he said. "I think it's pretty funny. It's amusing."
The study itself is the most unusual thing to come out of the heated and high-profile race for the Valley's top prosecutor.
Soon after the Web site appeared over the summer, Nelson's campaign manager turned to an analyst in England who has spent decades specializing in figuring out how to identify the authors of unattributed texts, such as old religious works.
The analyst, Michael Farringdon, helped develop a technique that turns sentences and paragraphs into data on a graph.
The idea, according to Farringdon, is that every writer has his own pattern of writing, like a fingerprint. "It doesn't interest too many people," he said.
In this case, though, it interested a politician in the Valley.
Kilroy, Nelson's campaign manager, sent Farringdon the content of the anti-Nelson Web site, as well as writings of five prime suspects: Thomas, the two aides, policy analyst James Estrada and a conservative blogger from Sonoranalliance.com known only by the name "Pat."
Farringdon meticulously mapped out the writing patterns of each, then mapped the patterns for the entries on the blog. He compared the bunch to see what matched. "That took me long enough to work on, I can tell you," Farringdon said.
He determined Thomas' writing was "indistinguishable" from three of the blog entries. The same was said about Alexander for five entries and Lotstein for six.
The analysis is no proof, though, Farringdon said. "I'm not saying that they did write them. All I'm saying is that they're indistinguishable."
For Kilroy, it was enough. The accusations, he said, are particularly telling of Thomas.
"I think if people understood that there's a very high probability that he's been engaging in this kind of online attack on his opponent, that says something about what kind of person he is," Kilroy said.
On the other hand, Lotstein called the study "voodoo science" and said it looks like an 11th-hour move by a campaign that is trailing with less than a week to go before the election.
"I think they recognize that they're behind in the polls," Lotstein said. "They are throwing out whatever they can in the last days of the campaign."
The study may also prove to be a problem for Nelson in the tight race. When Kilroy was told by the Tribune that Farringdon estimated his services normally would have cost about $20,000, he sputtered.
"I have not seen an invoice," Kilroy said. "I'll see what he charges, and we will comply with all significant laws."
Kilroy said Farringdon has offered to charge far less. Another alternative, Kilroy said, would be to call Farringdon a volunteer for the campaign.