EXACTLY ONE WEEK before the primary election, the Associated Press dropped a bomb on the Senate campaign of Ohio Republican Bernie Moreno.

The AP told Moreno’s campaign that it confirmed a profile on the “sex-and-swingers” Adult FriendFinder website had been established in 2008 by someone using Moreno’s email account from his car dealership. The Moreno profile was set up to search for “Men for 1-on-1 sex,” the AP reported.

The subject matter and timing of the story were terrible for Moreno, a 57-year-old married man and father. He was about to appear on stage with Donald Trump to get a needed boost in a tight and vicious three-candidate GOP primary against Matt Dolan, a state senator, and Frank LaRose, the Ohio secretary of state. The campaign has already seen $50 million in TV ad spending. For about a month, Moreno’s campaign had kept the Adult FriendFinder story out of the press and largely off social media by: (1) denying any knowledge of the Adult FriendFinder profile; (2) accusing opponents of pushing a smear; and (3) arguing that the profile in question had never been activated with Moreno’s email from one of his Ohio car dealerships.

But the AP checked the Adult FriendFinder metadata—which became public after an infamous 2016 data breach—and used the expertise of a cybersecurity researcher to determine that someone had activated and authenticated the Adult FriendFinder profile by using Moreno’s email.

The AP ultimately couldn’t say whether Moreno himself established, or knew about, the Adult FriendFinder account, which he continues to deny. The AP told Moreno’s campaign it was publishing its story soon.


What happened over the ensuing days, as told by insiders who described what happened behind the scenes for this story, constitutes a textbook lesson in how a major political campaign’s immune system kicked in to protect the candidate, neutralize a negative story, and then counterattack the press. It used private legal threats from a libel attorney nicknamed the “Gawker Slayer” and a public pressure campaign from rival media organizations as well as the leader of the party, Trump, who rallied with Moreno in Dayton on Saturday.

“You could have 3,000 Adult FriendFinder stories and it wouldn’t equal the power of one Trump endorsement,” said Ohio Republican consultant Ryan Stubenrauch, one of the few not signed up with a Senate campaign, who credited Moreno’s campaign for its broad and effective pushback.

FIRST, THE CAMPAIGN STALLED FOR TIME and found a former Moreno employee—and current campaign contributor—who took the fall for setting up the Adult FriendFinder account when he was an intern at one of Moreno’s car dealerships. He called it a regrettable “aborted . . . juvenile prank.” Another former Moreno employee (who is also a current campaign contributor) backed up the story in a separate written statement.

After the story was published last Thursday evening, the conservative website Breitbart attacked the AP’s reporting.

Moreno’s top in-state endorser, Sen. J.D. Vance, swung into action and used his contacts in the tech world to reach Adult FriendFinder founder Andrew Conru, who issued a public statement Saturday in which he said that he believed the profile in question was “consistent with a prank or someone just checking out the site.” (Why this testimony should be taken seriously is anyone’s guess.)

Vance then amplified Conru’s statement on X and called on the AP to issue a correction (it refused).

“Finding the founder of Adult FriendFinder to say, ‘Yeah, it sounds like a prank’ was very effective. It’s rather unique,” Stubenrauch said. “But the donor who said he used to be an intern coming out and saying it was his prank? Yeah. That was a little too convenient. There’s a whole lotta weirdness on both sides about whether this is fact or fiction.”

After Trump was briefed on Moreno’s alibi, he privately dismissed the story as a smear planted by Moreno’s opponents and remained determined to help Moreno win. Trump wants to showcase the power of his Moreno endorsement, which he made at the strong urging of Vance and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. Moreno is also the father-in-law of Max Miller, a former Trump White House staffer now in his first term in Congress.

In Trump’s orbit, some made light of the controversy over the Moreno swinger story.

“Who says Ohio isn’t a swing state?” one Trump adviser chuckled.

MORENO HAS ALSO RECEIVED HELP from an unexpected source during the primary: Democrats’ Duty and Country PAC, which last week began spending $2.5 million on TV ads calling the car dealer “too conservative for Ohio”—which is essentially an in-kind contribution during a GOP primary.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who supports Dolan, complained Thursday that Democrats “know [Moreno is] the weakest candidate to beat Sherrod Brown this fall.” Former Ohio Sen. Rob Portman has also endorsed Dolan, who ran afoul of Trump during his failed 2022 Senate bid for refusing to say the 2020 election had been stolen.

With DeWine and Portman in Dolan’s camp and Trump, Vance, and Jordan lined up behind Moreno, the primary reflects the broader divide in the GOP between pre-Trump conservatives and Trump’s MAGA movement.

Hours after the AP story ran, the super PAC backing Dolan, Buckeye Leadership Fund, began airing TV attack ads against Moreno, describing him as “creepy.” It has also called Moreno a “closet” Democrat.

Moreno’s lawyer, Charles Harder, sent cease-and-desist letters to the stations running the ads.

Harder became a feared figure after suing the gossip website Gawker into bankruptcy when he represented Hulk Hogan. That lawsuit was financed by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who had been outed by Gawker. To finish connecting the dots: Thiel was a top financial supporter of Vance in 2022. Moreno had also been part of that 2022 primary field. After Trump endorsed Vance, Moreno dropped out and endorsed Vance, too. This cycle, Moreno hired key members of Vance’s 2022 campaign and super PAC team for his campaign.

In a Saturday letter responding to Harder’s demands, Buckeye Leadership Fund attorney Chris Ashby urged the stations to air the ads because they were true, the AP report was credible, and the Moreno campaign’s “alibi” was not believable.

“The thrust of Mr. Moreno’s response to the AP story is that old Washington excuse, the intern did it,” Ashby wrote.

Ashby further cast doubt on Moreno’s trustworthiness because he reportedly once destroyed evidence in a civil case. And the alleged facts of the Moreno-Adult FriendFinder story are . . . strange.

According to the Moreno campaign, the Adult FriendFinder profile was set up by Dan Ricci.

Ricci’s LinkedIn account says that he is currently the general sales manager at a Cleveland car dealership. In his written statement he claims that he was able to set up Moreno’s profile on November 12, 2008 because he had access to Moreno’s email ([email protected]). In establishing the profile, Ricci also accurately plugged in Moreno’s birthday, February 14, 1967. Ricci then supposedly referenced this date in creating the name of the profile, “nardo19672,” which also used a Spanish-language diminutive for the Colombian-born Moreno’s first name, Bernardo.

The account set up for Nardo19672 specified the user was seeking sex with men—not in Ohio, but in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where Moreno’s parents had lived.

“Hi, looking for young guys to have fun with while traveling,” nardo19672 said on its profile.

Six hours after it was set up, according to AP’s report, it was no longer used. There is no evidence Moreno used it. No “young guys” have accused Moreno of any sexual activity with them.

“I am thoroughly embarrassed by an aborted prank I pulled on my friend, and former boss, Bernie Moreno, nearly two decades ago,” Ricci said in his written statement.


Though Ricci says he was an “intern” when he established nardo1672, his LinkedIn profile doesn’t list the internship or where it was. Instead, it shows he was the chief operating officer of a foreign exchange trading company from 2008 to 2009 and he attended Ohio University in Athens from 2004 to 2009. That’s more than three hours away from the Cleveland area, where Moreno’s company is headquartered.

What was the nature of the internship? Did Ricci drive more than three hours from school to the internship? Ricci, who didn’t return calls or reply to a text message, isn’t saying. His LinkedIn profile shows he began working for one of Moreno’s companies in 2011.

A former vice president of Bernie Moreno Companies, Helder Rosa, said in a separate written statement that Ricci was an intern at the time in question and that the company had many interns with “duties that included checking emails, responding to simple inquiries, and other tasks to help senior management.”

Rosa couldn’t be reached for comment by The Bulwark. A maxed-out donor to Moreno, Rosa contributed $6,600 to his campaign on March 29, 2023. Ricci contributed $1 less than Rosa on May 8.

Moreno’s attorney, Harder, indicated that Ricci’s and Rosa’s signed statements show that Moreno is being unfairly attacked.

“The email address in question was not Bernie’s personal email address, but rather an email address that appeared on company websites and literature and was managed by staff,” Harder said in a written statement. “Multiple people had access to it, including this intern. Bernie Moreno had nothing to do with the AFF account. According to metadata, the AFF account was never even used—there were no communications or contacts sent to or from any other AFF accounts, and no photos or content were uploaded to it.”

It seems unlikely that the story will have much of an impact on the primary vote. But we’ll know in a few hours.

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