Originally, the site, which cost PIPE about $800 to build, contained a list of city officials' e-mail addresses, a map of the pipeline route, and photos of warning signs along that route. Last week, people who went to the site were greeted by three frames of animated hands counting dollar bills and an admonition to "Follow the Money." Two of the frames led to articles from the Austin American-Statesman detailing how money has trickled from Navajo Refining Co. -- a competitor of Longhorn -- to PIPE and its director, Jeff Heckler; the third led directly to the Web site of Navajo's parent company, Holly Corp. (Now those pages are gone, but PIPE has been unable to resurrect their original files. As of this Wednesday, May 3, the site was simply "under construction.")
Heckler, who has been dealing with criticism for running a campaign funded by gas and oil interests, is understandably upset by the changes. He says whoever hacked the site has stolen important intellectual property from the coalition, and he's threatening to take legal action over the matter -- against Longhorn Pipeline and potentially Exxon-Mobil, one of Longhorn's partners, as well.
"They stole it when we needed it most," says Heckler, noting that PIPE could not access the site leading up to the January public meetings in Austin over Longhorn. "We figure this is a violation of our civil rights. It's pretty clear our freedom of speech has been impugned."
Don Martin, who has been running Longhorn's public affairs campaign in Austin, laughs when asked about the allegation that his employer has stolen the Web site. "My initial reaction in the overall scheme of things, with all the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on both sides, [is] why would anybody from Longhorn do this sort of petty stuff?" Martin says. "It just doesn't make any sense."
Robin Rather, president of Mindwave Research and former SOS Alliance chair, thinks it's plausible that Longhorn may have overstepped the line, and believes that whoever's responsible should be prosecuted. "I think this was a desperate move by a company that doesn't have a legitimate way to get its point across," Rather says. "This is information hijacking. This is identity theft. Put bluntly, this is stealing."
Heckler says he'll be taking his case before state and federal prosecutors to try to stir up some interest. In the meantime, the federal Dept. of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, which have joint oversight of Longhorn's proposal, are still reviewing some 60,000 pages of public comment. The agencies are expected to make a long-awaited announcement concerning further study of the plan and call for a full environmental impact statement later this spring.