Trump-backed Senate candidate says intern pranked him with adult website profile

Ohio Republican Senate candidate Bernie Moreno speaks during a forum at the University of Findlay (AP)
Ohio Republican Senate candidate Bernie Moreno speaks during a forum at the University of Findlay (AP)

The campaign of a Trump-backed Senate candidate in Ohio has said that an intern pranked him by making a profile for him on an adult website 16 years ago.

Bernie Moreno may clinch the Ohio Republican Senate nomination in the primary set for Tuesday, shooting to the top after being endorsed by former president Donald Trump. He was a supporter of LGBT+ rights before switching stances and becoming an opponent.

Mr Moreno is now facing questions regarding a profile from 2008 on the site Adult Friend Finder seeking sexual partners. The profile sought “men for 1-on-1 sex”.

The profile doesn’t have any photos but includes the caption: “Hi, looking for young guys to have fun with while traveling.”

That’s according to a review of public records following a data breach of the site. Records reveal that the profile was used for the final time just six hours after it was created.

The review showed that an individual with access to Mr Moreno’s email account created the profile.

Questions about the profile have been going around for the past month. Mr Moreno’s attorney has said that a former intern, Dan Ricci, created the profile as a prank.

In a statement shared with The Independent, Mr Ricci said: “I am thoroughly embarrassed by an aborted prank I pulled on my friend, and former boss, Bernie Moreno, nearly two decades ago.

“I was one of the many people at the company with access to his public-facing email account - - and created the adult friend finder account in question. It was part of a juvenile prank that I never ended up going through with that clearly was not intended to be malicious.”

Campaign finance records show that Mr Ricci donated $6,599 to Mr Moreno’s campaign last year.

A former Vice President at Bernie Moreno Companies, Helder Rosa, said: “I worked for Bernie Moreno Companies from May of 2005 through the sale of the dealership in March of 2019. During that period of time, the dealerships employed many interns, both paid and unpaid. Many of those interns were given duties that included checking emails, responding to simple inquiries, and other tasks to help senior management. In November of 2008, Dan Ricci was an intern.”

Charles Harder, an attorney for Mr Moreno, said: “16 years ago an intern at Moreno Auto created an account at AFF as a prank, which he quickly abandoned that same day ... 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. 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. The AFF account existed for less than a half-day, 16 years ago,” he added.

A former swing state, Ohio is now seen as more of a red state after Mr Trump won it twice after former President Barack Obama did the same. Republicans now hope to win back one of the state’s senate seats from Democrat Sherrod Brown.

Republicans are just one seat short of a majority in the Senate, meaning that winning the upper chamber could have massive effects if Mr Trump manages to win back the White House.

Mr Trump chose to endorse Mr Moreno over other Republican candidates in the primary, such as Secretary of State Frank LaRose and State Senator Matt Dolan.

Mr Trump is set to rally supporters alongside Mr Moreno in Dayton, Ohio tomorrow.

Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said the press is “obsessed with anyone who supports the America First movement”.

Party officials have sought a review of data to understand if Mr Moreno was involved in creating the profile, a review that connected the profile to the candidate’s work email address. The profile also includes Mr Moreno’s date of birth, with geolocation data showing that the account was established to be used in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where the candidate’s parents owned a home at the time, according to property records.

The username nardo19672 could be a reference to Mr Moreno’s first name Bernardo and the numbers to his birth month: February 1967.

Mr Moreno was born in Colombia, immigrating to the US as a child and becoming a citizen at the age of 18. Coming from a wealthy family, he built a business that included multiple car dealerships in several states.

Mr Moreno has made comments in support of gay rights in the past, and his dealership sponsored the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland and Akron featuring LGBT+ athletes.

“A successful Gay Games would go a long way toward boosting our images as cities that welcome all,” he wrote in Crain’s Cleveland Business.

“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,” he wrote as he urged others to back the event.

He has cited the TV comedy Modern Family for changing views on same-sex marriage and when fliers were put up on the campus of Cleveland State University in October 2017 telling gay and transgender students to take their lives, Mr Moreno, the chair of the school’s board of trustees at the time, called it an “abhorrent message” and described it as “an attack on our whole campus”.

His companies were included on a list of businesses that backed legislation against discrimination of LGBT+ people.

But his pro-LGBT+ views appeared to change when he initially ran for the Senate in 2021, a race he left early. More recently, he has claimed that LGBT+ advocates are pushing a “radical” agenda, accusing them of “indoctrination”.

He has said that Mr Dolan and Mr LaRose are supporting a “radical trans agenda”. A Moreno campaign ad criticises Mr LaRose for backing legislation that Mr Moreno’s companies previously supported.

The Associated Press contributed to this report