Patterico's Pontifications

8/14/2008

Were Former L.A. Times Editors Given Preferential Treatment in Coverage of a Local Los Angeles Scandal?

Filed under: Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 12:34 am

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.

22 Comments

  1. In a comment to Patterico, Ropelight alleges preferential treatment for favorites. Sort of an Affirmative Action Program for habitual kibitzers.

    Qualifications don’t carry much weight, perceived membership in a privileged group is what counts.

    Patterico, this is not directed at you. I’m talking about the informal culture some folks here avow which allows familar favoraties to be exempt from the limitations of candor and forthrightness. Limitations which are nevertheless arbitrarily enforced against perceived upstarts.

    When it comes to giving the MSM and most often the LAT the Bronx Cheer when they duck a story, like ex-Senator John Edwards (D-NC) and his recent antics, the condemnation is widespread. But let a favored commenter misbehave and guess which self-righteous busy-bodies are looking the other way.

    Comment by Ropelight (4a83c9) — 8/14/2008 @ 1:29 am

  2. Ropelight – please provide specifics. All I see is allegation without proof.

    Also, note that Journalism is different from Management. Management is all about being selective to maintain a good environment. You treat someone you know different from someone who makes a bad first impression. The person you is cut some slack, as their bad behavior is not typical. Journalism is based on fairly conveying information. Favoritism here distorts the portrayal of events, and is thus counter-productive. Running a comment thread is much more like management.

    Comment by OmegaPaladin (05c9b6) — 8/14/2008 @ 2:24 am

  3. The amount of overbilling proven at trial was a bit over a half a million dollars. Less than what was initially alleged, but not “minor”. Stealing a half a million dollars of taxpayer money (which Dowie orchestrated–he made subordinates submit false time entries) is a felony.

    That the sources of the story had contacts at the LA Times–big deal. That they were treated more leniently–again, big deal. Journalists don’t burn their sources if they can help it. The only question is whether the story was fairly reported. The one criticism that can be aimed at the Times is that the amount generally reported was too high, but apparently that number came from Laura Chick.

    The Times story did trigger an investigation that toppled Dowie, but that was his bad judgment in hiring ex-journalists (like Dowie himself) and then being surprised when they leaked on him when required to submit false time entries. The funny thing is that Dowie was famous for using the press this way when he became a power-broker. I personally watched some of these antics in an aborted transaction with DWP years ago. The F-H goombahs only helped to screw matters up.

    Comment by Cyrus Sanai (4df861) — 8/14/2008 @ 3:07 am

  4. Cyrus said, “That the sources of the story had contacts at the LA Times–big deal. That they were treated more leniently–again, big deal.”

    Big deal? Yes, it’s a very big deal. These “sources” were granted anonymity, which would now be in violation of the Times’ current guidelines on anonymous sources instituted after a couple very embarrassing incidents and the guidelines of most major newspapers. Readers deserved to know who these sources were so they could evaluate their credibility. But they were treated “more leniently.” You bet they were – and it’s amazing that Cyrus would argue that’s OK. If Muir and Stogsdill were named in the story, exposing their conflicts and allowing readers to judge their motives, it would have been laughable. In addition, ignoring Muir’s sworn testimony in open court that he had been a source — and that he had personally overbilled clients — was outrageous and proved the paper had something to hide. The question isn’t whether Dowie and Stodder are guilty. The appeals court, which has already indicated it has problems with the case, will ultimately make that decision. The question is whether they were treated fairly by the Times. And clearly, they weren’t.

    Comment by Politico (0696e0) — 8/14/2008 @ 6:52 am

  5. #2,

    Please see nk’s comment at #123 on “Shock and Awe in Georgia,” it’s currently on the next page. nk says he was responding to my comment at #96, however that’s subject to doubt, at least in my eyes. You are welcome to call it like you see it.

    Thanks for your interest. Start with either nk’s insult at #123, or my “provocation” at #96. The trail from nk on is wide open and easy going. Do read DRJ’s brief, but illuminating, observation at #172.

    My analogy isn’t perfect, please understand, I’m working with the tool available. But, I do have a point.

    Comment by Ropelight (4a83c9) — 8/14/2008 @ 7:15 am

  6. Patterico must be hating us for this. I don’t think he intended to start an open thread.

    On topic, I worked for the Chicago Crime Commission. We were not as aggressive as the Better Government Association but we did try to get the media to push our agenda up to and including driving prosecutions. So yes, legitimate media needs to be careful when somebody stands to lose his liberty and property (or even his life) whether they’re pushing the agenda of a pressure group or of a crony.

    Comment by nk (e69fdd) — 8/14/2008 @ 8:07 am

  7. Patterico, I could jam a broomstick up my butt, give myself some severe electric shocks to the head and then do a Cyrus imitation and pompously lecture everyone on the thread, but the mood just doesn’t feel right somehow.

    Comment by daleyrocks (d9ec17) — 8/14/2008 @ 8:14 am

  8. By *driving prosecutions* I don’t mean traffic offenses. To make certain felonies go to trial.

    Comment by nk (e69fdd) — 8/14/2008 @ 8:20 am

  9. What an interesting story of Times-connected ass-covering…

    Any word yet from Stanton, Rohrlich,or Zahniser?

    Comment by h2u (81b7bd) — 8/14/2008 @ 8:25 am

  10. Ropelight,

    Meet me at the shock and awe post.

    Comment by nk (e69fdd) — 8/14/2008 @ 8:30 am

  11. LIHOP or MIHOP ?

    Patterico – My bad for responding to the idiot. You know that my impulse control is bad when it comes to allowing idiocy to go unanswered.

    The LA Times are proving to be increasingly vile.

    Comment by JD (75f5c3) — 8/14/2008 @ 9:00 am

  12. JD,
    I don’t think the LA Times is proving to be increasingly vile. Folks like Patterico are uncovering the vileness that was there all along.

    As they say in the news biz, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

    Comment by Bradley J. Fikes (a18ddc) — 8/14/2008 @ 9:49 am

  13. Sunlight is a great disinfectant; but,
    in the case of the Slimes,
    they need RAID!

    Comment by Another Drew (249078) — 8/14/2008 @ 9:51 am

  14. Faber seems to have overlooked an April 27, 2006 LAT story by John Spano which reported Fred Muir’s testimony in detail, including his statements that he participated in overbilling at the direction of Dowie’s co-defendant, John Stodder.

    As I read Faber’s letter, the main thrust seems to be an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct — i.e., the suggestion that Monique Moret testified against Dowie in exchange for prosecutorial leniency toward her father. I don’t see that he’s provided any evidence of this, but it seems that his real targets in this letter are members of your own profession, Patrick.

    Comment by Tim McGarry (9fe080) — 8/14/2008 @ 11:55 am

  15. Stealing a half a million dollars of taxpayer money (which Dowie orchestrated–he made subordinates submit false time entries) is a felony.

    If it’s presented as stealing. But it’s also billing, it’s not stealing, though the Times certainly framed it as stealing.

    You should see the way the street sweeper “cleans” my street once a week—he blasts it at 35 mph and just shoves some of the gutter residue into the middle of the street. Is this “stealing”? No, it’s billing. But you could write a story about how it’s stealing, how the worker is ripping off the city for the price of his wages, how the sweeping machines are just a big scam, make-work for a preferred city contractor, etc.

    PR really isn’t much different than street sweeping, it’s just pushing around and cleaning up a different kind of dirt, and it’s up to the government agency to make sure that billing is appropriate. It used to be easy for the local newspaper with a vendetta to push a city attorney around and get this kind of inconsequential “stealing” story, but now, not so much, because the local newspapers have squandered so much good faith.

    The Times jumped on the Dowie “story” because they didn’t have any real investigative journalists at the time; that should be obvious. There was corruption all over the East Side, corrput machine politics leading to the character assassination of Hahn and the Villaraigosa mayoralty, but in the middle of all that corruption the Times pushed this stupid Dowie story and the equally stupid Pellicano story as its big “investigative journalism” effort.

    Comment by jason (b52d64) — 8/14/2008 @ 12:10 pm

  16. Tim,

    I am interested in reading that article. If what you say is true, the post will have to be updated. It might justify a new post.

    I fully understand that the letter is an effort by Mr. Dowie’s counsel to call his conviction into question. Thus, the letter can be read to raise (without evidence) a theory that leniency was offered by the U.S. Attorney without disclosure. That would indeed be misconduct, and I doubt it happened.

    But I still think the fact that a witness’s father was under investigation — and could have been charged, but wasn’t — is useful information for the public to know. Might the feds — even without an agreement — have been (even subconsciously) influenced in deciding whether to prosecute Mr. Moret, knowing that to do so would likely alienate an important witness in another case? I think it’s a legitimate question to raise.

    I was careful not to endorse any of Mr. Faber’s claims, and to note that I’m not arguing Dowie’s innocence. But if any part of Mr. Faber’s letter is provable false, I still bear a responsibility to make the true facts known, and I will do that. Unfortunately, it will have to wait until tonight; I can comment on my lunch hour on a Treo, but I can’t edit a long post.

    If you have the article you mentioned, or a link to it, could you e-mail me?

    Thanks for the comment.

    Comment by Patterico (873e9e) — 8/14/2008 @ 12:26 pm

  17. April 27, 2006 LAT story by John Spano.

    Here’s the link, Patrick. Have also e-mailed you the story from the latimes.com site.

    Comment by Tim McGarry (9fe080) — 8/14/2008 @ 12:44 pm

  18. As Tim McGarry states in his comment, I hope the LA Times acknowledged that its former editor(s) were involved in this story. I also hope the Times included that information with the same degree of exposure used in the rest of the story. Were these stories all front page or A section stories, or were some of them relegated to the B Section?

    Comment by DRJ (a5243f) — 8/14/2008 @ 12:44 pm

  19. Mr. McGarry & Mr. Frye:

    That story does indeed state Muir testified he inflated bills — at the direction of Stodder. What wasn’t reported was Muir’s testimony that he also inflated bills on his own and that he was an anonymous source for the Times story, working hand in hand with two former colleagues. The story clearly states he was angry at Dowie for denying him a raise. The Times allows him to get even anonymously. And that just stinks. Had Fleishman Hillard been allowed to respond to Muir’s allegations before publication, it’s unlikely the Times would have even used him as a source. Even Judge Fees criticized Muir at the end of the trial. That wasn’t reported either.

    Comment by Politico (0696e0) — 8/14/2008 @ 2:03 pm

  20. DRJ: Waiting for the Times to admit its’ mistakes.

    Do you really think that you’re immortal?
    Forever is how long you’ll have to wait.
    These people give arogance a good name.

    Comment by Another Drew (249078) — 8/14/2008 @ 2:36 pm

  21. Remember, there was only one named source in the entire story and she was a very junior employee who had been at the firm about 10 minutes. Arguably, had Fleishman Hillard been given the opportunity to respond to each accusation from a named source, there never would have been a story – nor a prosecution.

    Comment by Politico (0696e0) — 8/14/2008 @ 2:38 pm

  22. See the update. I have a new post with a response from Rohrlich, and with Tim’s link.

    Comment by Patterico (cc3b34) — 8/14/2008 @ 5:48 pm

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