When John Rodstrom Googled himself, he didn't like what he saw.
At the top of the first page of the search engine's results was a link from a blog called Florida Masochist naming the veteran Broward County commissioner as its Knucklehead of the Day (for failure to vote on a post-hurricane relief measure). There was also a post on the first page of results from my own blog, the Daily Pulp, that criticized Rodstrom and included comments from readers that absolutely savaged him.
This wouldn't do.
Rodstrom is not only looking for another job after Wachovia included him in a round of layoffs but he's facing three opponents in next week's Democratic primary vote. He didn't want voters or potential employers to see those posts.
So he hired a pro.
Enter Shawn Nafzinger, a search-engine optimizer, "reputation manager," and the new go-to guy for politicians in Broward County who have an internet problem.
Nafzinger is a goateed fellow who lives more than 1,000 miles away in the small town of Goshen, Indiana. He runs a small company that specializes in helping businesses get better play on Google, Yahoo, and other search engines.
When he got the call from Rodstrom a few months ago, it was the first time he'd ever been called by a politician for help, but it wouldn't be the last.
Rodstrom paid Nafzinger $900 from his campaign account for the cleanup job. Nafzinger then set out to push the Knucklehead award and Pulp post down into Google oblivion.
"It's hard to push that specific negative story down; in fact, it's almost impossible," Nafzinger told me. "What we do is push other things up. I don't want to get into too much here, but basically you optimize other pages and push them up in front of the sites that are showing the negative information."
And Nafzinger appears to be pretty good at it. When I searched Rodstrom's name last week, the top sites included three links to the commissioner's page on the county's official website, and the fourth came up to a bland networking link presumably created by Nafzinger.
That was followed by a couple of less offensive posts from the Pulp (one about him making tens of thousands of dollars on the stock market and another about his job loss at Wachovia) and then pages of mostly benign stuff from the likes of the Sun-Sentinel.
So what of that Knucklehead award? It's now sixth from the very last link, all the way back on the 38th page.
And the post from the Pulp the commissioner wanted gone? The screed, sarcastically titled "Free John Rodstrom!" called him out for playing "divisive, dirty politics." And one of the comments under the post wasn't nearly as nice.
No worries — it was gone.
The post can still be brought up on Google, but it doesn't come up with a search of Rodstrom's name.
Now, I have reason to not particularly like Nafzinger's work for politicians, but he's obviously pretty good at it. Rodstrom liked him so much that he referred two of his reputation-challenged friends — Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion and state Rep. Evan Jenne — to Nafzinger.
When you bring up Eggelletion on Google now, you don't get news about his unethical work as a lobbyist, his son outside of marriage whom he has neglected, or his alleged affair with the son's mother while she was a high school student and he was her teacher.
Predictably, you now get his official page on his county website and other detritus. It's not until the third page that any of his ill deeds come to light.
With Jenne, it was the sins of his father that he needed to expunge. The state rep is, of course, the son of Ken Jenne, the disgraced former sheriff now living in a federal pen. It's a shadow the younger Jenne wants to get out from under. Since Nafzinger went to work, the first several Google pages are daddy-free.
And this is only the beginning — the reputation-management business in America appears to be entering a boom.
"This is getting to be huge," Nafzinger says. "Some candidates now are putting together teams of bloggers to help [optimize their positive web presence]. It's becoming a major industry."
The practice may hide the truth and help politicians hoodwink the public, but the thing that I find truly objectionable is the use of campaign money to pay for it. If candidates want to clean the public record, they should pay for it out of their own pockets. In fact, I'll be the first to propose a law that says just that.
I just hope this story doesn't get optimized right out of existence before anybody can read it. Rodstrom has been paying Nafzinger $300 a month — out of campaign coffers, of course — to monitor his search results and keep those pesky negative stories out of sight.
Nafzinger could, of course, make a great career of cleaning up after Broward County politicians only— and if anyone really needs his services, it's Broward County School Board member Beverly Gallagher.
When you Google Gallagher, the first thing that pops up is a 2-year-old report of mine titled "A Politician Weeps." It's about how she landed a $50,000-a-year job at the Community Blood Centers (CBC), which happens to have a contract with the School Board.
Gallagher should never have taken such a job in the first place, of course. Worse still is the fact that lobbyist Neil Sterling, who represents school builder James Pirtle, used his influence to get her hired. Sterling has also raised tens of thousands of dollars for Gallagher's campaigns.
What makes it particularly suspicious is the fact that Gallagher has touted Sterling's clients at nearly every turn and steered hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of school projects to Pirtle.
The arrangement plays very close to the legal line and could easily be interpreted by a serious prosecutor as unlawful compensation, which is a third-degree felony in Florida.
When I interviewed her about it in 2006, she started crying and said she was going to quit her job. A couple of days after that story was published, the Miami Herald followed the article and quoted Gallagher saying (falsely) that she was misrepresented in my article.
Today, Gallagher is still picking up a $50,000-plus salary at CBC, which subsists on contributions of both blood and money from concerned citizens.
Now she's running a hard-fought campaign, with Henry Rose a serious challenger to her seat. I wondered how in the world she could have time to do her School Board duties, work a full-time job at CBC, and mount the campaign. So I tried to call her at the CBC office in Lauderhill this past Tuesday morning to ask her about it.
The receptionist put me on hold after I asked for her and then transferred me to the voice mail of another staffer.
I called back and told the receptionist about the mistake. She said it was no mistake at all. Gallagher wasn't in the office, and another staffer was doing her job. I asked her if I could drop in during the afternoon to see Gallagher.
"No, she's not here often, so you would definitely have to make an appointment," she told me.
She then asked me if it was about a scholarship (Gallagher's official position is "executive director" of the CBC scholarship fund). She suggested I talk to somebody else if that was my aim, since Gallagher was no longer overseeing scholarships.
I asked her what Gallagher was doing.
"They're still trying to find a new job for her," the receptionist told me.
Outrageous. This politician, doing the bidding of a lobbyist who helped get her the job, is obviously barely working for her grand-a-week paycheck (she made $53,000 last year). What makes it even more galling is that people who do actually work for a living are getting laid off en masse during this economic downturn.
Gallagher didn't return a detailed phone message for comment. I'm really starting to think voters should not return her to office come Election Day.