mcclatchydc.com >> BY TIM JOHNSON From
For an online dating site, toddandclare.com seems really good at cloak-and-dagger stuff. Disconnected phones. Mystery websites. Actions that ricochet around the globe.
But the attention grabber is the Houston-based company’s target: Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, whose steady dumps of leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign have given supporters of Donald Trump the only cheering news of the last few weeks.
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In some ways, toddandclare.com’s campaign against Assange is as revelatory as the leaked emails themselves, illustrating the powerful, sometimes unseen, forces that oppose WikiLeaks.
Whoever is behind the dating site has marshaled significant resources to target Assange, enough to gain entry into a United Nations body, operate in countries in Europe, North America and the Caribbean, conduct surveillance on Assange’s lawyer in London, obtain the fax number of Canada’s prime minister and seek to prod a police inquiry in the Bahamas.
And they’ve done it at a time when WikiLeaks has become a routine target of Democratic politicians who portray Assange as a stooge of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his reported efforts to disrupt the U.S. election.
One part of toddandclare’s two-pronged campaign put a megaphone to unproven charges that Assange made contact with a young Canadian girl in the Bahamas through the internet with the intention of molesting her. The second part sought to entangle him in a plan to receive $1 million from the Russian government.
WikiLeaks claims the dating site is “a highly suspicious and likely fabricated” company. In turn, the company lashed out at Assange on Thursday and “his despicable activities against American national security,” and warned journalists to “check with your libel lawyers first before printing anything that could impact or endanger innocent people’s lives.”
So why are the parties to the melee coming out with both barrels blazing? That remains a mystery of the kind that might take a WikiLeaks-style document dump to suss out.
What is beyond dispute, though, is that the attacks on WikiLeaks rose as the group released a first batch of leaked Democratic National Committee emails in July, days before the party’s national convention, and again this month, as WikiLeaks began releasing thousands of emails from the account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman.
[RELATED: Ecuador cut off Assange’s internet at U.S. request, WikiLeaks says]
The online company paints itself as all-American. Online material says its founders, Todd and Clare Hammond, “are an average American couple from Michigan, who met in the eighth grade.” In 2011, the company says, the Christian couple started an email dating service, and “have married 3,000 couples to date.” Their online network began in 2015, and a statement it filed to a U.N. body says it has “100,000+ female singles” in six countries.
The company’s operating address is a warehouse loading dock in Houston. Its mail goes to a Houston drop box. Its phone numbers no longer work. WikiLeaks says Texas officials tell it the entity is not registered there either under toddandclare.com or a parent company, T&C Network Solutions.
The person who responds to email sent to the company declined to identify himself or herself or answer further questions.
“We are not required to confirm the information you are requesting to anyone other than our government and tax authorities. So many people (and companies) have now been unfairly libeled by the wikileaks troll machine, we are being advised not to comment,” an unsigned email from the company to a McClatchy reporter said Thursday morning.
The people behind toddandclare.com persuaded a U.N. body known as the Global Compact to give it status as a participant in May, and it submitted an eight-page report to the U.N. group Oct. 4 carefully laying out its allegations against Assange. The firm was delisted by the U.N. body eight days later amid controversy over its claims.
An Australian lawyer, Melinda Taylor, said the report’s precise language raised additional suspicions at WikiLeaks, where she assists Assange in human rights litigation.
“This is not a report that’s been drafted by a dating agency. It’s highly legalistic and very structured. It’s the language of someone who has drafted complex legal submissions,” she said.
Under Todd Hammond’s name, the report alleged that Assange’s Swedish lawyer had reached out in June to offer Assange’s services on a campaign against rape in exchange for an undisclosed amount of bitcoin. It said the two sides held two videoconferences.
Then came the bombshell: It said the company had ended ties with Assange following “pedophile crimes” he had committed in the Bahamas in late September. It charged that the victim was the 8-year-old daughter of a Canadian couple on a monthlong yachting vacation. The father went to police in Nassau on Sept. 28, the report claimed, charging that his family held video and chat logs showing Assange “internet grooming” the child and “propositioning the 8-year-old juvenile ‘to perform oral and anal sex acts.’ ”
It said Assange, who has been in refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in London since 2012, made a connection to the child’s 22-year-old sister, who was a client of the online dating site, gaining access to the young girl.
An assistant commissioner for the Royal Bahamas Police Force, Stephen Dean, said “there is no investigation” into any such incident and that the police have received no evidence that such an incident occurred.
“We got a phone call of someone giving us some information. But we never had a face-to-face. It could have been a hoax,” Dean said. “We don’t know.”
If someone were in possession of video or chat logs about a pedophile crime, he or she did not provide them to Bahamian police, Dean said, which he said would be odd: “If you have something so significant, I think you’d want to leave a report.”
Assange’s Swedish lawyer, Per Samuelson, wrote to the U.N. body on Oct. 10 alleging that Hammond’s report against Assange was “entirely false” in all its facets and that he had had no contact with the dating site or Hammond.
[RELATED: Clinton’s WikiLeaks strategy: Doubt, delay, distract]
Even as authorities in the Bahamas dismissed the report, the dating site sent a fax Oct. 17 to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying the Canadian family had fled the Bahamas due to “anti-white, racist abuse by Bahamian police.”
“Julian Assange . . . has started a smear campaign to claim our dating company is behind an elaborate scam. It is fully to be expected. Pedophiles are devious and cunning,” the fax said.
The company said it would “continue to protect the family’s identity, until either the (Royal Bahamas Police Force) conduct a proper investigation, or hell freezes over. Whichever comes first.”
The fax was signed, “The Todd and Clare Team,” and left no way to contact the firm.
While the founders of toddandclare.com say they’ve been in the matchmaking business since 2011, their internet presence dates only to September 2015 and really got going only early this year. Those who have done work for the company say they were kept at arm’s length.
A Los Angeles actress, Lexi Graboski, told McClatchy that another company, Fiverr.com, had contacted her in January to appear in a video to explain how to use the toddandclare.com dating website. She said she knew only her contact’s username: NYCPrincess.
By summer, in the run-up to what many expected to be an “October surprise” from WikiLeaks to make an impact on the U.S. election, toddandclare.com began moving against Assange in multiple countries simultaneously. The DNC and a cyber-threat intelligence firm it had hired, CrowdStrike, were already fingering Russia as behind the hacks that would provide the fodder for WikiLeaks. They’d said in June that Russian hackers had access to DNC servers for about a year.
A company representative, identifying herself as Hannah Hammond, emailed Assange’s Swedish and British legal agents offering $1 million for him to appear in a five-minute tongue-in-cheek television advertisement. In a subsequent exchange Sept. 19, the representative wrote that “the source of the $1,000,000 is the Russian government.”
In a curious twist, she offered what she said were three facts about Assange’s London attorney that are “unknown to the public,” including details inside her home and an event in her son’s life, suggesting a capability to conduct surveillance.
Taylor, the Assange lawyer, said the details appeared “to create the impression that the members of his team were under close surveillance and/or to bolster the bona fides of the claim that the offer was linked to a State. Its inclusion does appear quite menacing.”
A lawyer identifying himself only as “James” responded the next day, slamming the offer as an “elaborate scam designed to entrap” Assange and embarrass him for ties to Russia.
The dating site representative sought to pull the veil off “James.”
“Julian: We know it’s you writing. The offer expires at midnight, October 31st 2016,” she wrote back on Sept. 21, according to copies of the emails posted by WikiLeaks on its website.
By early October, toddandclare.com went on the offensive. It filed a civil complaint in a British court against Assange, seeking 295 pounds sterling – about $359 – in damages because it said it could no longer use his services due to the “child sex offenses in Nassau.”
The suit, said Taylor, Assange’s lawyer, “seems to be designed to evade defamation law in the U.K. They’ve put highly noxious information knowing that it would be made public.”
The global tussle between the online dating company and WikiLeaks went public in mid-October when the anti-secrecy group voiced public doubt on whether toddandclare.com actually existed, or served only as a vehicle to attack Assange.
The announcement opened the gates for a disparate crew of internet sleuths – some motivated by hatred of Clinton and others impelled by support for WikiLeaks – to probe into the history of toddandclare.com, suspicious that the dating site might be an undercover operation with links to the Clinton campaign.
Posting their findings on the discussion websites 8chan.net and Reddit.com, they unearthed some curious coincidences. A perusal into the archives of the internet revealed that the Hammonds had once occupied a San Francisco building later rented to a company, Premise Data, whose co-founder has ties to Clinton and her top supporters.
Moreover, a telephone number once registered to a Todd Hammond later was registered to a former Premise employee, Aaron Dunn, although with a different area code.
Premise co-founder David Soloff said such findings could only be coincidences.
“I want reiterate that Premise has no connection with this case. And beyond confirming that Aaron Dunn worked at Premise until 2014, I don’t know the answer to any of your questions,” Soloff wrote in an email.
Whoever is behind the toddandclare.com website came out slashing Thursday, accusing WikiLeaks of “vicious slurs” and saying they were “law-abiding citizens” subject to the “sinister and unlawful behavior of Wikileaks reddit users, calling for people to be harassed and physically hurt.” It acknowledged “disconnecting our phones for the time being.”
“Stay strong everyone,” the message concluded. “Dissent is so important. God bless America, we are truly the greatest nation on Earth. Todd and Clare.”