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Trump-backed Senate candidate faces GOP worries that he could be linked to adult website profile

WASHINGTON (AP) — For Republicans eager to regain the Senate majority this year, Ohio offers a prime opportunity to pick up a critical seat.

But ahead of Tuesday’s primary election, there’s mounting anxiety inside the GOP that Bernie Moreno may emerge with the nomination. After vaulting into the top tier of contenders with a coveted endorsement from Donald Trump, Moreno — who has shifted from a public supporter of LGBTQ rights to a hardline opponent — is confronting questions about the existence of a 2008 profile seeking “Men for 1-on-1 sex” on a casual sexual encounters website called Adult Friend Finder.

“Hi, looking for young guys to have fun with while traveling,” reads a caption on a photo-less profile under the username “nardo19672,” according to an Associated Press review of records made public through a massive and well-publicized data breach of the website. Records also show the profile was last accessed about six hours after it was created.

The AP review confirmed that someone with access to Moreno’s email account created the profile, though the AP could not definitively confirm whether it was created by Moreno himself. Questions about the profile have circulated in GOP circles for the past month. On Thursday evening, two days after the AP first asked Moreno’s campaign about the account, the candidate’s lawyer said a former intern created the account as a prank. The lawyer provided a statement from the intern, Dan Ricci, who said he created the account as “part of a juvenile prank.”

“I am thoroughly embarrassed by an aborted prank I pulled on my friend, and former boss, Bernie Moreno, nearly two decades ago,” Ricci said. The AP couldn’t independently confirm Ricci’s statement and he didn’t immediately respond to messages left for him on multiple phone numbers listed to him. He donated $6,599 to Moreno’s campaign last year, according to campaign finance records.

Moreno’s lawyer, Charles Harder, insisted Moreno “had nothing to do with the AFF account.”

Once a premier swing state, Ohio has moved sharply to the right in recent years. Trump easily won the state in 2016 and 2020 and the GOP controls top statewide offices along with both chambers of the legislature. That has raised hopes among Republicans that Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won’t be able to overcome the headwinds that have largely swept his party out of power in Ohio.

And with Republicans just one seat short of a Senate majority if they also win the presidency, the results in Ohio could have major implications for the balance of power in Washington.

The dynamics have raised the stakes for Trump, who sided with Moreno in a crowded field that includes Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Sen. Matt Dolan. Trump is scheduled to appear alongside Moreno on Saturday at a rally in Dayton, Ohio.

GOP frustration

Moreno’s potential vulnerability has sparked frustration among senior Republican operatives and elected officials in Washington and Ohio, according to seven people who are directly familiar with conversations about how to address the matter. The people requested anonymity to avoid running afoul of Trump and his allies. They described concerns surrounding Moreno’s candidacy as so acute that some party officials sought a review of data to determine his potential involvement.

That review, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter, linked the profile to Moreno’s work email address.

The AP’s independent review reached the same conclusion. The AP obtained data from the Adult Friend Finder leak as well as information that remains publicly accessible on the company’s website. An analysis of those records show the profile was created and authenticated by someone who had access to Moreno’s work email account.

Beyond the work email, the profile lists Moreno’s correct date of birth, while geolocation data indicates that the account was set up for use in a part of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where property records show Moreno’s parents owned a home at the time. The account’s username — nardo19672 — appears to refer to Moreno’s full first name, Bernardo, as well as the year and month of his birth in February 1967.

“This is a telling example of how this data doesn’t just go away,” said Jake Williams, a prominent cybersecurity researcher and a former National Security Agency offensive hacker who independently confirmed that Moreno’s work email address was included in a copy of the leaked data from Adult Friend Finder.

Harder also provided a statement from Helder Rosa, a former vice president for Bernie Moreno Companies, that said Ricci was an intern in November 2008 and that people in such roles had duties that included checking emails. Rosa has donated $12,400 to Moreno’s two campaigns for Senate, according to campaign finance records. He didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Moreno, 57, was born in Colombia to a wealthy family before immigrating to Florida as a child and becoming a U.S. citizen at the age of 18, according to a biography on his website. He purchased his first car dealership in 2005 and used his wealth to build an empire that came to include high-end dealerships in multiple states.

Shifting views

And before Moreno began articulating anti-LGBTQ views during his runs for public office, he made comments that seemed to reflect acceptance of homosexuality.

When Cleveland and Akron won their bid to host the 2014 Gay Games, an Olympics-like international competition featuring LGBTQ athletes, Moreno was an enthusiastic supporter while his auto dealership company was a financial sponsor, according to an opinion article he wrote for the business publication Crain’s Cleveland Business.

“A successful Gay Games would go a long way toward boosting our images as cities that welcome all,” Moreno wrote while issuing a call for northeast Ohio’s philanthropic community to rally behind the event. “They need help to put them on. Hosting a complex multi-venue event requires a network of financial supporters and volunteers. It must be a community effort.”

During a 2016 question and answer session posted to his company’s YouTube page, Moreno noted that his eldest son is gay, while crediting the TV show “Modern Family” with changing perceptions about same-sex marriage.

“We watched these two guys and, we say: ’You know what? They’re good guys, they’re great people. … They are not this distorted thing that is out there.’ And I think those are the kinds of ways that you can break down stereotypes,” Moreno said during the event.

When fliers appeared on the campus of Cleveland State University in October 2017 urging gay and transgender students to commit suicide, Moreno, who was then chairman of the school’s board of trustees, was the leading signer of a letter condemning the “abhorrent message” as “an attack on our whole campus.”

As recently as 2020, his companies were included on a list of Ohio businesses that supported a law banning discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Leaders of Equality Ohio, a leading LGBTQ rights group in the state, said Moreno joined the campaign supporting the legislation after a conversation with the organization’s leadership in 2017 during event promoting the bill.

But that all appeared to change when Moreno first ran for Senate in 2021 before bowing out of the race early. He began to distance himself from his past activism, professing to be unfamiliar with the anti-discrimination legislation, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported at the time.

During his current Senate campaign, Moreno has accused advocates for LGBTQ rights of advancing a “radical” agenda of “indoctrination.” He is endorsed by Ohio Value Voters, a group that opposes LGBTQ rights, including same-sex marriage. And his campaign’s social media accounts have blasted his opponents, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and State Sen. Matt Dolan, as supporters of a “radical trans agenda.”

A recent TV ad paid for by Buckeye Values, a pro-Moreno super PAC, superimposes a picture of LaRose over a rainbow flag while attacking him as “a champion for trans equality.” The ad cites LaRose’s past endorsement for a bill — which Moreno’s company previously supported — that would have banned discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

“Can you trust Frank LaRose?” a narrator asks, while also criticizing LaRose for making favorable statements in the past about Equality Ohio, a prominent gay rights group. Moreno supported the same legislation through his companies.

Donald Trump Jr. later posted the ad to X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, stating “I have no doubt” Ohio voters will elect “the real conservative @berniemoreno over leftwing, pro-trans Frank LaRose.”

Moreno’s shifting rhetoric on LGBTQ issues “is a real shame,” said Maria Bruno, the public policy director for Equality Ohio, which advocates for LGBTQ rights. ”Anyone who is going to be compromising their value system just to win an election, they lose a lot of credibility.”

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Associated Press data journalist Larry Fenn contributed to this report from New York.

Brian Slodysko And Aaron Kessler, The Associated Press



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