Below is the text of an e-mail I just sent to the L.A. Times Readers’ Representative regarding their recent misleading story on the timing of the targeting of former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam. For the sake of readability, I won’t indent it. Everything that follows is the letter:
I am writing regarding a story in this morning’s L.A. Times about the timing of the Bush Administration’s decision to target former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam for firing. (“Gonzales aide called proscutor a ‘real problem,'” March 15.)
I believe your paper badly disserved its readers with this article. The story is, as a whole, highly misleading in its omission of critical facts. Moreover, it flatly misstates facts about when Lam was initially targeted for dismissal. The ultimate result is to suggest that the Bush Administration targeted Lam due to her investigation of Randy “Duke” Cunningham. The evidence — unreported and distorted in the article — is flatly to the contrary.
Here is the timeline of events:
- March 2, 2005: Kyle Sampson informs White House Counsel Harriet Miers that Lam is being targeted for possible dismissal. Sampson attaches a list of U.S. Attorneys, dated February 24, 2005. The names of those targeted for dismissal are stricken out. Lam’s name was stricken out, meaning she had been targeted for possible dismissal as of March 2, 2005. You can view Sampson’s March 2, 2005 e-mail at this link.
- June 12, 2005 (three months later): Marcus Stern of the San Diego Union-Tribune breaks the news of the Randy Cunningham scandal: “A defense contractor with ties to Rep. Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham took a $700,000 loss on the purchase of the congressman’s Del Mar house while the congressman, a member of the influential defense appropriations subcommittee, was supporting the contractor’s efforts to get tens of millions of dollars in contracts from the Pentagon.” View the story at this link.
Carol Lam was on a list of targeted prosecutors three months before the Randy “Duke” Cunningham scandal ever broke.
Why did today’s article not make that point?
And make no mistake: Lam did not investigate Cunningham before Marcus Stern’s article was published. To the contrary, Stern’s article was the only reason Cunningham was prosecuted. One of the lead prosecutors confirmed this in a 2006 interview with the American Jouralism Review:
“Without Marc Stern’s story there might not have been a Cunningham case,” says [Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip] Halpern, one of the lead prosecutors, who considers Stern the “genesis of the investigation. [He] was responsible for the criminal prosecution. This is the first time in my [25-year] career I have predicated a case upon a news story.”
In an article questioning whether Lam was targeted because of the Cunningham investigation, it is absolutely critical to tell readers that Lam was initially placed on a working list of targeted U.S. Attorneys three months before the Cunningham investigation ever came to light.
Yet today’s article not only fails to make this point, it positively misstates the date when Sampson told the White House Counsel that Lam had been targeted. Today’s article says:
On May 11 — the month after Sampson told the White House counsel’s office that Lam was being targeted for dismissal — The Times reported that federal prosecutors in Los Angeles had begun an investigation into [Republican Rep. Jerry] Lewis.
The Times report in question was published on May 11, 2006. The article thus asserts that Sampson told the White House counsel’s office that Lam was being targeted for dismissal the month before — in April 2006. But in reality, Sampson had communicated this to the White House counsel more than a year earlier — in March 2005, months before the Cunningham scandal ever came to light.
I can’t see how you can even begin to justify this. The entire article is about whether Lam was targeted because she prosecuted Cunningham. You have proof that Lam was targeted well before Lam even began to investigate Cunningham. Indeed, Lam was targeted months before anyone even knew that there was anything about Cunningham that merited investigation. Not only is this basic point hidden from your readers, but worse, your paper misstates the date of the initial targeting. The article tells readers that Lam was targeted in April 2006, which is months after Cunningham pled guilty — when she had initially been targeted in March 2005, before Cunningham’s corruption came to light.
I understand that the March 2005 list was a working list, and that the official decision was made later. It is still critical information that the initial decision to target Lam far predated the Cunningham investigation. This is strong evidence that the Cunningham investigation was not the reason Lam was targeted. Your readers deserve to know this, and they weren’t told. Indeed, they were specifically told something very different.
Your paper also makes quite an issue of the timing of an e-mail from Kyle Sampson to White House Deputy Counsel William Kelley on May 11, 2006. The article tries to tie this to the publication of an L.A. Times article on the same day, which reported that the investigation was spreading to another Republican Congressman. The article omits critical context that, if reported, would give a possibly innocent reason for the timing of the e-mail.
The article states:
“The real problem we have right now is Carol Lam,” D. Kyle Sampson told White House Deputy Counsel William Kelley on May 11. “That leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires.”
Let me take the liberty of quoting from the actual e-mail, including the context that your paper chose to omit. I’ll put the critical context in bold:
Per your inquiry yesterday after JSC, this is the e-mail I sent to Dabney last month at Harriet’s request. Please call me at your convenience to discuss the following:
- Tim Griffin for E.D. Ark; and
- The real problem we have right now with Carol Lam that leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires.
The e-mail sent to Dabney the month before had confirmed that DoJ recommended Lam for removal. (Again, this was not the first time that the White House had been told that Lam had been targeted; as I pointed out above, that first occurred in March 2005.)
I’ll not comment in detail on the numerous mistakes The Times made in the simple act of quoting this e-mail accurately. Those are evidence of sloppiness, but they are not misleading. What is misleading, however, is your paper’s failure to report the fact that Sampson was responding to an inquiry made by Kelley the day before Sampson’s e-mail was sent.
Why was Sampson writing Kelley on May 11? Maybe it’s because The Times reported that Carol Lam was investigating Jerry Lewis. [See the UPDATE below — actually, she wasn’t. Debra Yang was. — P] But maybe — just maybe — Kelley was responding to a specific request that the Office of the White House Counsel had made the day before. Your job isn’t to decide which interpretation is right; it’s to report the facts and let the reader decide. But the reader can’t do that, because the reader is not told of Kelley’s request from the day before. If the timing of the e-mail is so critical, don’t readers deserve to know about a possible innocent explanation? But instead of telling readers this, the story says that Sampson “fired off” the e-mail — language that implies that the idea for the e-mail originated with Sampson, when in fact he was simply responding to a request.
Finally, the story reports that the probe into Lewis was being handled in Los Angeles and not San Diego. But instead of presenting that fact as evidence that Administration officials were not upset at Lam over the Los Angeles-based Lewis investigation — why would they be? It wasn’t Lam’s case! — the article instead assumes that the Administration was upset at Lam, and presents it all as a mystifying paradox:
Debra Wong Yang, then the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said Wednesday that she was befuddled that anyone in Washington would be upset with Lam over a case being pursued in Los Angeles. “I’m not sure I understand the link,” she said.
The fact that the case was being handled in L.A. is, quite simply, evidence of the Administration’s innocence. Why not simply present it as such?
I know that these suggestions I am making would result in a less splashy story. But it would be a fairer story. And a more accurate one.
I look forward to your response.
[UPDATE: My letter says “Why was Sampson writing Kelley on May 11? Maybe it’s because The Times reported that Carol Lam was investigating Jerry Lewis.” But she wasn’t — the Central District’s Debra Yang was. — P]