21st CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT -- A Clifton Park teenager who secretly recorded a Democratic congressional candidate speaking about gun control in May has close ties to U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik and was paid by Republicans, The Daily Gazette has confirmed.
Preston Scagnelli, a 17-year-old Shenendehowa High School student whose name was revealed on Tuesday, lists himself on his LinkedIn page as an intern at Elise For Congress since June, and a volunteer with the Saratoga County Republican Committee.
The National Republican Congressional Committee said it has used him as a "tracker," someone who records a candidate as part of opposition research. Federal Elections Commission reports show he received three payments from the NRCC totaling $979.57 between May 30 and June 27. Payments are described as being for "research materials consulted."
Chris Martin, a regional spokesman for the NRCC, acknowledged the committee uses "trackers" to record the actions of candidates, and subsequently said it was using Scagnelli as a tracker, rather than him making the recording on his own and bringing it to them. "He did not approach us," Martin said.
Asked if it was common for the NRCC to use teens, Martin said by email: "I’m not getting into detail on our tracking operations. We work with trackers across the country to expose Democrats for lying to voters about their positions on important issues and we will continue to do so."
The Post-Star of Glens Falls publicly identified the high school senior on Tuesday, a day after North Country Public Radio did an extensive report that described his Republican and conservative links, but without naming him. The identity of the person who made the recording wasn't previously known.
In the recording, made at a small gathering on the porch of a private residence in the Saratoga Springs area on May 18, Tedra Cobb is pressed about recent school shootings, and says she told a questioner at an earlier event that if she came out in favor of an assault weapons ban, given the composition of the district, "I can't win."
The recording didn't become public until July 9 -- after Cobb had handily won the June 24 Democratic congressional primary -- and since then supporters of Stefanik have circulated it widely, saying it points to her hiding her true position on gun control.
Scagnelli did not respond to a request for comment by telephone or through his LinkedIn page. LinkedIn has a photograph of him, however, taken with Stefanik.
The Stefanik campaign wouldn't directly address its relationship with Scagnelli, but said Cobb should have known she could be recorded.
"As any candidate knows, video footage is a reality of politics," said Stefanik campaign spokesman Lenny Alcivar. "Congresswoman Stefanik has been tracked for years. The Stefanik campaign does not pay for trackers. We refer this to the (Republican National) Congressional Committee."
"The NRCC actively coordinates tracking activities and logistics because candidates often lie to voters about their actual positions -- just as Tedra Cobb did in this scenario," Martin said in a statement. "This was a publicly advertised event by Tedra Cobb's own campaign. Candidates are responsible for their words, and they should be held accountable if they're caught lying about their positions on the issues."
Cobb said the use of a minor to do opposition research was inappropriate. “There’s a line between legitimate activity to hold candidates accountable and dirty tricks," she said in a statement. "I think paying a minor child to snoop around under false pretense crosses that line. As a mom and teacher, I think it sends all the wrong messages to these kids.”
Her campaign said the event was promoted on Facebook as "Teens for Tedra," and "the minor child allowed himself to be identified as one of them using the name 'Grayson Thicke' and in fact offered to be helpful to Tedra going forward."
Cobb has continued to campaign across the district since the recording came out.
Cobb has said she was trying to address student concerns when she met with them, on the same day that a school shooting in Texas resulted in 10 people being killed. The recording is at times difficult to hear.
"When I was at this thing today, it was the first table I was at, a woman said, ‘How do you feel about assault rifles?' And I said they should be banned," Cobb can be heard saying in the cellphone recording. "And I said -- you know, people were getting up to go, to go get their lunch because it was a buffet -- and I just said to her, 'I want you to know Cindy, I cannot say that ... I won't win.'"
It remains unclear what role gun control will play in the general election, but all five Democrats who were running for Stefanik's seat before the primary favored some increased gun restrictions. Stefanik, R-Willsboro, supports gun rights.
Scagnelli listed himself on LinkedIn as a volunteer with the Saratoga County Republican Committee -- and county Republican Chairman Carl Zeilman was among those who circulated the video once it became public. Zeilman did not respond to a request for comment on what he knew about the youth.
Scagnelli participated in a roundtable with conservative high school students organized for The Daily Gazette in April.
Stefanik is seeking his third two-year term representing the North Country congressional district, which stretches from Saratoga and Fulton counties to the Canadian border.