Ro Khanna,  2009. (Patrick Tehan/Mercury News)
Ro Khanna, 2009. (Patrick Tehan/Mercury News) ( Patrick Tehan )

Ro Khanna, the House candidate challenging fellow Democrat Rep. Mike Honda, has been proud of his campaign's technological prowess from the start -- but technology this week betrayed the campaign in an embarrassing way.

Khanna's website took many of his Twitter followers and made it appear that they wanted to raise money for his campaign -- whether they supported him or not. Without the knowledge of these Twitter followers, the website generated "personal fundraiser" pages using their names and photos, identified them as "part of Team Ro" and invited others to donate money on their behalf.

The pages -- which Khanna's campaign says were an accident -- came to light after Jessica Calefati, recently hired by this newspaper as its state Capitol reporter, discovered such a page in her name Monday. Searches later revealed the same thing had happened to other journalists, including Mike Allen, Politico's chief White House correspondent, and Tom Verdin, California political editor for The Associated Press.

Once notified, the campaign quickly took down the pages and offered apologies. But it wouldn't say how many of Khanna's Twitter followers were automatically and incorrectly depicted as supporters and fundraisers, or for how long those pages were active.

"We were made aware of an unintentional, technical glitch on the back end of our website that resulted in the creation of some automatic online profiles," spokesman Tyler Law said Tuesday. "We have taken immediate steps to remove the pages and address the problem so this issue does not happen again ... and no money was raised from these pages."

But political expert Larry Gerston, a San Jose State professor, said "at a minimum, it's a very serious error."

"Candidates are so busy these days networking, fundraising and doing all the things they must do to gain traction that they often don't know all the things that are going on" with their campaign contractors' work, Gerston said. "But it reflects very badly on the candidate, irrespective of his knowledge."

Law provided more detail in an apologetic email sent earlier Tuesday to Calefati, explaining that the campaign's Web provider, Los Angeles-based NationBuilder, had "set up the website so that people who follow Ro on Twitter are marked as supporters."

The Ro Khanna campaign site included a ’personal fundraiser’ page for Bay Area News Group reporter Jessica Calefati.
The Ro Khanna campaign site included a 'personal fundraiser' page for Bay Area News Group reporter Jessica Calefati.

In that email, Law explained that supporters then automatically had profiles created on the campaign's website. Supporters were supposed to be able to opt into making their fundraising profiles public, but NationBuilder found "that Google's search optimization technology somehow found the fundraising language and made it public when searching through Google," Law wrote, noting that other search engines wouldn't have found it. "We never intended to have fundraising language appear without our supporter filling out their profile and marking explicitly that they want it made public."

Khanna as of Tuesday afternoon had 1,060 Twitter followers, including many journalists who cover his campaign. Google searches revealed several other journalists for whom these "personal fundraiser" pages had been created. All of those pages had been removed by mid-Tuesday.

Mainstream journalists aiming to remain objective about their work consider it taboo to publicly support political campaigns, especially if they cover politics, lest they be accused of bias.

Khanna, a Fremont resident who served for two years in President Barack Obama's Commerce Department, seeks to unseat Honda, D-San Jose, in the 17th Congressional District. Khanna's campaign has presented him as a younger, more forward-thinking candidate who is more in tune with Silicon Valley's tech economy. He currently works for Wilson Sonsini, Silicon Valley's largest law firm.

And he has prided himself on running a cutting-edge campaign, from its personnel -- packed with former Obama campaign figures, including general consultant Jeremy Bird, who was Obama's 2012 national field director -- to its technology, promising "people-focused, data-driven strategies and a digitally savvy approach to connect with voters and build grass roots support."

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.