Were Former L.A. Times Editors Given Preferential Treatment in Coverage of a Local Los Angeles Scandal?
In an e-mail to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, an attorney accuses the paper of giving favorable treatment to its former editors, in the paper’s coverage of a scandal involving alleged overbilling by a public relations company.
The letter is by Michael Faber, attorney for Doug Dowie, who was convicted of several felonies in connection with alleged overbilling of the DWP by P.R. firm Fleishman-Hillard.
Mr. Faber’s letter, for the most part, speaks for itself. I found several of the stories referenced in Mr. Faber’s letter, and have added links to the stories where appropriate, as an aid to the reader.
The full letter is below the fold. It repays repeated readings. I have bolded the parts I found most interesting, namely, allegations of favorable treatment given to former editors of the newspaper.
Here’s Mr. Faber’s letter:
Dear Mr. Stanton:
I represent Doug Dowie in certain matters stemming from his termination from employment with Fleishman-Hillard, and his subsequent criminal prosecution. Recently, you published two seemingly unrelated stories, one revealing that Lou Moret, a prominent political operative who was recently appointed to the CalPERS Board, had been under investigation by the FBI in a case that sent the mayor of South Gate to jail for corruption, and the other about fraudulent overbilling of the Department of Water and Power by the engineering firm CH2M Hill. In fact, however, the stories are closely related and highlight serious and ongoing questions regarding the Times’ coverage of the Moret story and the DWP scandals, as well as the original Dowie story.
Four years ago, as Jim Hahn was preparing to run for reelection, the Times published an explosive page-one story alleging that Fleishman-Hillard, a huge international PR agency closely associated with the mayor, had been routinely overbilling the DWP for years. The story was based almost entirely on anonymous sources, but it weakened Hahn and made him vulnerable to challengers.
Times reporter Ted Rohrlich co-authored the original story, and he continued to report on every development in the Fleishman-Hillard scandal in numerous stories over a two-year period that led to the indictment and conviction of three executives, including Mr. Dowie. It was also Ted Rohrlich who reported the Lou Moret story. Mr. Rohrlich failed to mention, however, that Lou Moret is the father of former Fleishman-Hillard Senior Vice President Monique Moret, who was the most important government witness against Mr. Dowie. Ms. Moret testified against Mr. Dowie under a grant of immunity under a deal with prosecutors apparently reached at the exact same time that those prosecutors were investigating her father’s activities in South Gate. None of this was made known to the Fleishman-Hillard defendants, much less the federal judge presiding over the trial, but it obviously raises serious questions regarding Ms. Moret’s credibility if her deal with prosecutors included protecting her father.
Mr. Rohrlich is one of the Times most experienced reporters, and he certainly could not have overlooked the connection.
Then, the Times reported the DWP was suing engineering firm CH2M Hill for over billing the department by $13.5 million – $13 million more than Fleishman-Hillard was eventually charged with over billing. The story was written by David Zahniser, considered one of City Hall’s most aggressive journalists – and one who reported extensively on the Fleishman-Hillard case when he was with Copley newspapers. Unlike the front page coverage of Fleishman-Hillard’s alleged overbilling, Mr. Zahniser’s story was buried on page B5, and conspicuously failed even to mention Fleishman-Hillard.
Why would two veteran reporters for a major metropolitan newspaper leave such glaring holes in their stories?
The answer lies in the original story the Times published about Fleishman-Hillard on July 14, 2004 – and who assisted in the reporting.
A key prosecution witness in the trial of Mr. Dowie was a former Times editor named Fred Muir. Muir had left the Times and gone on to Fleishman-Hillard, but he maintained close relationships with his former Times colleagues. Muir testified under oath that after clashing with Mr. Dowie at Fleishman, he assisted his former colleagues in the preparation of the original story. He also admitted under cross examination that he had personally over billed clients while at Fleishman. The Times, which covered every day of the trial, never reported on those portions of Muir’s testimony. Giving Muir anonymity to help him settle a score, and then not reporting key elements of his testimony was an egregious conflict of interest on the part of the newspaper.
Muir wasn’t the only former Times editor involved in the Fleishman-Hillard story – but you wouldn’t know it by reading the paper.
Carol Stogsdill, who had at one time been one of the paper’s most senior editors, left the Times after being passed over for the position of managing editor and eventually joined Fleishman-Hillard. She in turn hired Diana Greenwood, the daughter of former Times Senior Editor Noel Greenwood, to assist her on the DWP account, which became the focal point of the overfilling accusations.
Diana Greenwood, who reported directly to Stogsdill, was the only named source in the July 14, 2004, story to accuse the firm of overbilling.
Stogsdill, who at one time supervised not only the Times reporters who wrote the Fleishman-Hillard story but also many of their editors, was never mentioned in the story.
The Fleishman-Hillard case was, at bottom, a relatively minor billing dispute between it and the DWP. The Times was instrumental in turning it into a criminal prosecution which has devastated Mr. Dowie and his co-defendant, and resulted in a third executive pleading guilty in exchange for leniency. Regrettably, however, the Times played its part with shoddy reporting and questionable journalistic ethics. Although it is too late to undo the harm caused by the deficiencies in the original stories, it seems to me that your readers deserve, at the very least, some insight into how the Lou Moret and CH2M Hill stories are connected to the Fleishman-Hillard/DWP/Doug Dowie matter.
Michael J. Faber
I hasten to note several points.
First: Mr. Faber is, of course, an advocate for his client. I know of no inaccuracies in his letter, but it is appropriate to view with healthy skepticism claims made by a lawyer on behalf of his client.
Second: Mr. Dowie has been convicted by a jury of several felonies. He maintains his innocence at this point; Dowie pleads his own case here, and does so in a well-written and persuasive fashion. But I also know he was convicted by a jury of 12, beyond a reasonable doubt. Juries make mistakes, at times, but after a conviction I need to be told facts before I will conclude that the conviction was wrongful. I’m not there yet with Mr. Dowie, because I don’t know enough about the evidence presented in his case. Therefore, I express no opinion regarding the guilt or innocence of Mr. Dowie. Here is an article that summarizes the arguments made by lawyers for both sides.
Third, a disclaimer: I believe that my office was involved in the initial investigation that led to Mr. Dowie’s prosecution, although I know nothing about it, and the case was ultimately prosecuted by the federal government and not the District Attorney. Dowie and his lawyer are aware of my job title and said they don’t see a conflict with my publishing this letter. I can’t see why my office would care either, since it’s a federal prosecution, I’m not taking sides, and I’m concerned primarily with the possibility of journalistic malfeasance.
Again, the interesting part of the letter for me is the allegation — apparently backed by court testimony with which Mr. Faber claims to be familiar — that people with connections to the L.A. Times were given favorable treatment in the stories. Mr. Faber claims that Mr. Muir admitted overbilling, but that fact was not reported. Mr. Faber says that Mr. Muir was given anonymity to make accusations against someone with whom he had clashed in the company. Connections alleged by Mr. Faber between the paper and Ms. Stogsdill raise similar questions.
I have asked Russ Stanton, Ted Rohrlich, and David Zahniser for their reactions. I will report back when and if I hear anything.
UPDATE: Rohrlich responds here. In the same post is an L.A. Times article about the testimony of Fred Muir, which undercuts some (but not all) of Faber’s claims regarding omissions by the paper.