Former Donald Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo is determined to prove that he did not work for Vladimir Putin, and he’s using every tool at his disposal to do so—from a congressional ethics complaint, to a defamation lawsuit, to a surreptitious Wikipedia edit campaign.
Sean Dwyer, an employee of Caputo’s PR firm, Zeppelin Communications, was blocked from Wikipedia in August after he was caught using multiple pseudonymous accounts to purge Caputo’s page of alleged Putin ties, according to an investigation by the site’s editors. After the accounts were exposed as what Wikipedia calls “sock puppets”—multiple accounts run by the same person as part of a coordinated editing campaign—Dwyer admitted he had financial ties to the subjects of his edits.
It’s just the latest front in Caputo’s battles to save his reputation from, what he sees as, Russian smears. He also says he has filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) over comments at a congressional hearing in March, where the California Democrat accused Caputo of having been Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “image consultant.” In emails with The Daily Beast, Caputo said he will also be filing a defamation lawsuit against Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and accused Caputo of being “a Russian stooge who used to work for Vladimir Putin” in a Fox News segment last month.
In an email, Petkanas said he stands by his statements. “To my knowledge, Michael Caputo has not disputed this Washington Post report to which I referred stating that he worked for a Russian government run media company to improve the image of Vladimir Putin, who was the leader of the Russian government at the time,” he wrote. “To the contrary, according to that same report, he informed his hometown newspaper that he was ‘not proud of the work today. But at the time, Putin wasn’t such a bad guy.’”
A Republican operative from New York, Caputo ran communications for Trump’s campaign in the Empire State. Since then, he has registered as a federal lobbyist and signed on with the comeback House campaign of former congressman and convicted felon Michael Grimm.
Caputo lived in Russia more than 20 years ago. And he has a history of business dealings in the country that, though less scandalous than those of other former Trump aides, have trailed him since his work for Trump. Unlike one-time campaign chair Paul Manafort and others in Trump’s orbit, Caputo has faced no allegations of wrongdoing. But he is nonetheless determined to head off any suggestion that he is connected to the Russian government—and by extension the stench of the federal investigation into alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Congressional investigators probing that alleged influence campaign interviewed Caputo in July, and he emerged from the meeting with the same stance he had going in: insisting that there was no collusion and that he has no business dealings in Russia.
Caputo says Dwyer’s editing campaign was simply an effort to root out misinformation to the contrary. “Months ago, I was informed that a Russia conspiracy buff had posted an inaccurate biography of me, noting that I worked for Putin. I have never worked for Putin,” Caputo told The Daily Beast in an email. “I asked my staff to edit the posting, but to register properly as a paid editor.”
Dwyer did notify the Wikipedia community that he was being paid for his efforts, but he only did so after editing Caputo’s page on 10 separate occasions, primarily to tweak references to Caputo’s past work for the media arm of Gazprom, a state-owned Russian energy company with close ties to the Kremlin.
Caputo never worked for Putin. But his former PR firm, Rainmaker Interactive, represented Gazprom Media chief executive Alfred Kokh in the early 2000s, and helped burnish the company’s reputation with U.S. media and policymakers. At the time, Gazprom had just acquired NTV, one of Russia’s few major opposition media outlets, sparking an internal revolt among staff. Gazprom dispatched security services to seize NTV’s headquarters in a move that was widely condemned as an assault on independent Russian media. According to Kokh, Putin personally sanctioned the crackdown.
In an interview last year, The Buffalo News characterized Caputo’s subsequent PR work for Gazprom Media as “help[ing] President Vladimir Putin weather U.S. government criticism for taking over an independent TV station.” Caputo says that characterization is inaccurate, though he told the paper at the time, as Petkanas noted, that he is “not proud of the work today,” adding the caveat that at “at the time, Putin wasn’t such a bad guy.”
Given what Caputo characterizes as widespread—and even malicious—misrepresentations of his work in Russia, “Wikipedia inaccuracies barely even make it on my radar,” he said.
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And yet, Dwyer’s editing campaign, which was first reported by independent blogger Dean Sterling Jones, shows that Caputo was at least aware of the claims and determined to purge them. Dwyer did so through four different “sock puppet” accounts, according to Wikipedia’s investigation, and edit logs show he repeatedly attempted to remove language from the page that tied Caputo’s work for Gazprom to any efforts to burnish Putin’s reputation abroad.
Though it’s fairly common, “sock-puppetry is one of the cardinal sins of Wikipedia,” according to William Beutler, the president of digital marketing firm Beutler Ink and a longtime personal and professional Wikipedia editor. “We do this legitimately every day. But our approach is different from what they do here,” Beutler said in an interview. Unlike Dwyer, “we disclose who our clients are at the starting point.”
Caputo denied that Dwyer had run afoul of any Wikipedia guidelines. “Sean has done nothing wrong except engage with Wikipedia according to their rules, which apparently put him in the sights of a wanker trolling me from his mommy’s basement,” he said.
“His explanation isn’t quite right,” Beutler countered. “Dwyer had been editing since February without disclosing, and the admissions were among his very last edits, occurring only after the SPI (sock puppet investigation) had commenced.”
Despite Dwyer’s best efforts, Caputo’s current Wikipedia page contains language linking him to a Putin-backed PR campaign on Gazprom’s behalf. “Those reporting errors will last forever, trapped in the soft heads of leftists by tin foil hats strapped too tightly,” Caputo says.
In his defense, Caputo points to recent examples of him directly criticizing the Russian president, and adds, “I’ve even tweeted right at Putin during the DNC email scandal.”