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Tom Steyer aide resigns after stealing Kamala Harris' SC 2020 volunteer data

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In this Aug. 9, 2019 photo, Democratic presidential candidate and businessman Tom Steyer speaks at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. File/AP Photo/John Locher

COLUMBIA — A South Carolina aide for Tom Steyer's 2020 presidential campaign stole valuable volunteer data collected by Kamala Harris' campaign using an account from when he worked with the S.C. Democratic Party, according to multiple state and national party officials.

The Steyer campaign said that it does not have possession of the data and that Democratic officials were only aware of the download, which they said was inadvertent, because they proactively notified them. Both the Democratic National Committee and S.C. Democratic Party denied that.

The Democratic National Committee said they quickly caught the attempt on Friday by Steyer's deputy S.C. state director Dwane Sims to export Harris' data, which contained thousands of volunteer contacts collected over the course of the campaign in this critical early-voting primary state.

The party sent a cease-and-desist letter and has since received certification from Sims that he destroyed the stolen data, S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson told The Post and Courier.

"We take this matter very seriously, and that is why we immediately worked with the DNC to disable this employee’s access to Vote Builder," said S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson, referring to the voter file system. "It is critical that the Steyer campaign take immediate action regarding their employee."

Sims was placed on administrative leave over the weekend while the Steyer campaign conducts an internal investigation, Steyer campaign spokesman Alberto Lammers said.

Late Monday, after the initial online publication of this story, Sims resigned.

“We apologize to the South Carolina Democratic Party and the DNC," Steyer campaign manager Heather Hargreaves said. "Tom Steyer and the Steyer campaign extend our deepest apology to Senator Kamala Harris and her campaign."

Sims also is permanently banned from the voter file and all Democratic Party systems, Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said.

Before joining the Steyer campaign, Sims was the voter file manager at the S.C. Democratic Party, giving him access to the proprietary data each campaign collects by contacting voters and potential volunteers.

After Sims left the state party in September, Robertson said the party followed standard protocol by disabling his access to party accounts. But Sims was able to gain access to the Harris' data using a separate training account that had been inadvertently left active after Sims created it.

Lammers attributed the problem to the state and national party, saying they had "failed to limit access" to Sims after he left.

"He acted quickly to alert the appropriate people to rectify the matter, and the access was turned off by the party authorities," Lammers said.

Lammers initially suggested Sims had inadvertently downloaded Harris' data believing that it was Steyer's, not realizing that he had logged in to an old party account instead of the Steyer campaign account.

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But Hinojosa said that the DNC system showed Sims had downloaded the data at 3 p.m., three minutes after he had notified the party that he still had access and while they were working to revoke it.

Still, Lammers faulted the DNC.

"We are talking about 180 seconds in a system that is notoriously inaccurate," Lammers said. "And the DNC is not disputing the key fact that our employee proactively approached them to inform them of the matter. The bottom line is that nothing would have taken place if the DNC had been more diligent about the security of voter data."

No other campaign's data was exposed, Robertson said. The Harris campaign declined comment.

The voter file system is maintained by the Democratic National Committee, with separate accounts for each of the presidential campaigns.

Campaigns spend significant resources working to build private databases of voters and prospective volunteers they contact to register their interest in the candidate.

The Harris campaign has built a particularly extensive field organizing operation in South Carolina, which has been a priority for the California senator.

Data breaches have been a sensitive topic on presidential campaigns before, specifically during Democratic primaries.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders fired his national data director over allegations that he had wrongly accessed the Hillary Clinton campaign's voter data, an episode that sparked tension between the Sanders campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

Robertson said this is the only data breach of this kind that he is aware of in South Carolina so far in the 2020 presidential cycle.

The Steyer campaign publicly announced Sims' hiring in a news release on Oct. 14. Sims served for 23 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. Steyer is a billionaire hedge fund manager and longtime liberal activist, who has been the biggest ad spender in the large Democratic presidential field.

According to the most recent Post and Courier-Change Research poll, 11 percent of likely S.C. Democratic primary voters support Harris and 5 percent support Steyer. Former Vice President Joe Biden leads the field at 30 percent.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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