A Delta Junction City Council member says he’s been victimized by a fake Twitter account established under his name in January that includes several posts with racist comments. Charles Lester says he reported the account to Twitter on Friday, and the account was removed over the weekend. But there are doubts about Lester’s explanation.
Lester says the first time he heard about what he calls the “fake Twitter account” was on Friday, when a reporter who’d gotten a tip called him to ask if he knew about it.
“No. No, I don’t,” he said. “I have a Facebook account. That’s it.”
Lester says he got a couple more calls Friday about the Twitter account after a member of the public shared a screenshot of the posts with a few reporters. The image shows replies to Tweets posted by President Trump criticizing Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, a naturalized citizen from Somalia who was elected to Congress last year. The replies from the @CharlesHLester account-holder refer to Omar as a “dirty filthy immigrant” – and, in other replies, much worse.
Lester denies posting the hateful messages – but he says he hopes Omar is defeated when she runs for re-election next year.
“I hope (Danielle) beats her in the next race!” he said, apparently referring to Danielle Stella, a Minnesotan who’s said she’ll challenge Omar in 2020.
The Twitter account’s home page correctly identifies Lester’s job as a Trans-Alaska Pipeline-related worker and occupant of Delta City Council Seat E. The account also included photos of Lester and his wife and three kids and the usual assortment of hunting and fishing trip images.
“I’m going to find out about this anyhow,” he said. “I don’t know if somebody’s trying to mess with me or what’s going on.”
Many of the photos and posts appear to be the same as those on Lester’s Facebook account. He says that’s where the person who set up the Twitter account must’ve gotten the images and posts.
“Yeah,” he said, “I don’t even know how, but I’ll find out?”
Lester said Saturday that he’d contacted Twitter to report the alleged impersonation and he says the account has been removed. KUAC’s efforts contact Twitter were unsuccessful. On Tuesday, Lester said in a text message that he’d taken down his Facebook account, because, “people are able to pull almost anything off of it that they want.”
He says he felt urgency to take the precaution after reviewing the Twitter site, adding: “It’s kind of personal, y’know?”
But some differing posts on the Twitter and Facebook accounts call Lester’s denials into question. For example, both accounts include images of a trip to Hawaii that Lester and his family took in early May. The Hawaii photo on the Twitter account, however, bears a time stamp that shows it was taken three days before it appeared on the Facebook account.
Also, a May 6 post on the Twitter account only describes problems the person who posted says he was having trying to catch a flight out to Hawaii.
But Delta Mayor J.W. Musgrove says Lester told him the Twitter account is fake, and he’s inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t have a personal opinion one way or the other,” Musgrove said Tuesday. “A person in the United States is generally innocent until proven guilty.”
Musgrove says he’s seen a screenshot of the offensive Tweets and replies, but he didn’t look at them closely. The mayor says he wouldn’t consider any sort of reprimand for a council member who’d posted those kinds of messages, unless they incited violence.
He also says the City Code doesn’t address council members’ online behavior. And in any case, he believes voters should decide whether a council member is fit to serve.
“If the public wants to take action, there’s such a thing as a ballot box,” Musgrove said. “They can either believe him or not believe him. It’s up to them to decide.”
Delta’s turnout for local elections is sparse, however, and council members rarely face a re-election challenge.
Fairbanks NAACP chapter President Bennie Colbert says there’s a simple solution to help heal the wounds inflicted by the angry messages on the @CharlesHLester account – one that doesn’t require new ordinances or election challenges. He says Lester should just disavow the words on the account, and work to ease racial tensions.
“Since he’s in a leadership role, he would go out and make the wrong right,” Colbert said Monday. “If you’re against it (racism) and you didn’t say it, then say that.”
Colbert says regardless of who posted the remarks to the Twitter account, it’s up to Lester and public officials at all levels of government to renounce racism.
Editor’s note: CoastAlaska’s Jacob Resneck and Alaska Public Media’s Kirsten Swann contributed to this story.