By Maggie Haberman and Nick Corasaniti – – – – –
A fight between the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party’s leadership went public on Friday, on the eve of the year’s final primary debate, as the Sanders camp accused the party of actively trying to help Hillary Clinton.
The dispute came after members of Mr. Sanders’s data team were found to have gotten access to proprietary information from Hillary Clinton’s team during a software glitch with an important voter file. The Democratic National Committee acted swiftly to deny the Sanders campaign future access to the party’s 50-state voter file, which contains information about millions of Democrats and is invaluable to campaigns on a daily basis.
Mr. Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, accused the party committee of stacking the scales to help Mrs. Clinton, claiming that it was being unfairly penalized for the data breach. At a news conference, Mr. Weaver insisted that the campaign had dealt with the situation by firing its national data director and said that the Sanders team would file a federal lawsuit if its access wasn’t reinstated by the end of the day.
The D.N.C. is “actively” working to “undermine” the Sanders campaign, Mr. Weaver insisted, reflecting longstanding a frustration that the party apparatus, which is supposed to be neutral, is lining up behind Mrs. Clinton.
The flare-up comes as the D.N.C. has already been accused of staging the party’s debates at times of low viewership — like Saturday night’s broadcast — to diminish the chances that Mrs. Clinton’s two main rivals, Mr. Sanders and Martin O’Malley, will be able to raise their profiles.
“We are announcing today that if the D.N.C. continues to hold our data hostage and continues to try to attack the heart and soul of our grass-roots campaign, we will be in federal court this afternoon seeking immediate relief,” Mr. Weaver said.
But Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the party committee, said that it was an indisputable fact that the Sanders campaign had gained access to information that it knew it was not entitled to. If the situation were reversed, she told CNN, the Sanders campaign would expect the same type of discipline of the Clinton campaign.
“The Sanders campaign doesn’t have anything other than bluster at the moment that they can put out there,” she told CNN on Friday. “It’s like if you found the front door of a house unlocked and someone decided to go into the house and take things that didn’t belong to them.”
At issue is a dropped firewall that took place on Wednesday, as the firm that handles the list, NGP VAN, was making a tweak to its system. That meant that the campaigns could see each others’ information. But only the Sanders campaign accessed data that was proprietary.
According to people briefed on the matter, four different user names associated with the Sanders campaign conducted searches of the Clinton data. A summary of audit trails of the logs show that people with the Sanders campaign searched and saved multiple files, according to two people briefed on the matter.
Stu Trevelyan, the chief executive of NGP VAN, stressed that by Friday morning he was confident that no other campaigns have had “access to or have retained any voter file data of any other clients; with one possible exception, one of the presidential campaigns.”
The suspension comes as Mr. Sanders received the endorsements on Thursday of a major union, the Communications Workers of America, along with the liberal group Democracy for America.
The Democratic committee blamed NGP VAN for the software glitch.
“This was an isolated incident, and we’re conducting a full audit to ensure the integrity of the system and reporting the findings to the D.N.C.,” Mr. Trevelyan said Thursday night.
The committee’s communications director, Luis Miranda., said, “The D.N.C. was notified on Wednesday by its data systems vendor NGP VAN that as a result of a software patch, all users on the system across Democratic campaigns were inadvertently able to access some data belonging to other campaigns for a brief window.”
“The D.N.C. immediately directed NGP VAN,” he said, “to conduct a thorough analysis to identify any users who accessed the data, what actions they took in the system, and to report on the findings to the party and any affected campaign.”
He added, “We have also instructed NGP VAN to conduct a full audit of the system to ensure the integrity of the data and the security of the system for the campaigns that use it, and to begin a review process with every campaign and user to ensure they understand and abide by the rules governing the use of the system.”
Josh Uretsky, the fired national data director from the Sanders campaign, insisted in an interview on Friday that he had been trying to verify the breach, adding: “We did so in a way that we know would create a record that the D.N.C. and NGP VAN would have access to. We deliberately did not download or take custodianship of the records.”
Mr. Uretsky acknowledged that it was clear that Clinton data was being looked at, but said that he was trying to assess how available the Sanders campaign information was to others.
“It’s like one of those things you can try to do something in secret, or you can try to do it in a way that any other person should know” if they checked records, he said. “We weren’t really looking at it, we were showing access to it. We could have spent the time trying to get something useful out of it, and we didn’t.”
Mr. Uretsky described the suspension of the campaign’s voter file access as “an overreaction” and one that was potentially paralyzing to the campaign.
“It makes it very difficult for the campaign to conduct its daily activities,” he said. “The campaign routinely relies on these lists and data.”
Campaigns are not the only ones that can access the NGP VAN information. The “super PAC” supporting Mrs. Clinton, Priorities USA Action, has a contract with NGP VAN, according to Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the group. Mr. Barasky said the group uses it for fund-raising purposes, not the type of field organizing in which the campaigns use it.