Bait and Switch
In July, after Congress allowed the independent counsel law to expire, you barely heard a word out of Ken Starr. But last week, Starr's friends and foes were back to talking about one of the juicier subplots of the impeachment scandal: the allegation that a group of anti-Clinton activists secretly channeled cash payments to Whitewater witness David Hale.
As followers of the right-wing conspiracy will recall, the Associated Press and Salon broke the story in March 1998. The alleged bagman was Parker Dozhier, a bait-shop owner who accepted at least $35,000 to be "the eyes and ears" of two men who came to Arkansas to dig up dirt on Bill Clinton. The men worked for The American Spectator, which had received $1.7 million for the so-called Arkansas Project from right-wing philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife. The source of the charges was a former girlfriend of Dozhier, but Dozhier denied giving any money to Hale.
Before long, the basic plot of this buddy movie was corroborated by The Washington Post, which has run about 10 related stories to date. After Mann repeated her story to FBI agents, the Justice Department recommended an investigation, which Starr turned over to special prosecutor Michael Shaheen. The main question for Shaheen: Did Dozhier & Co. make the alleged payments, and if so, were they trying to influence Hale's testimony? Other pertinent questions: What did Starr know about Dozhier, and when did he know it?
Alas, we may never hear the full story. On July 28, a week after the Daily News broke the news that Shaheen's 168-page report was in Ken Starr's "hot little hands," Starr's office announced its acceptance of the report. The language in the press release was terse, stating that there was "insufficient credible evidence" to warrant criminal charges. In a style akin to haiku, it suggested that while some "thing[s] of value" may have been exchanged, "many" of the allegations were "untrue." Which "thing[s]"? How "many"? Starr's office declined to provide further details, citing the confidentiality of grand jury testimony.
This coyness struck some as odd, if not downright antithetical to Starr's decision to disclose ample grand jury testimony in The Starr Report. "I was left quite curious," said one political reporter in Washington, D.C. "I would like to know the full contents." Joe Conason, who has written on the Arkansas Project for The New York Observer, said, "I find Starr's sudden concern for the sanctity of the grand jury quite touching. . . . I'm perfectly willing to accept the idea that nobody should be indicted. But the fact that they want to cover up everything in this report except for one fraction of a paragraph smells bad." Indeed, a July 29 story in the Daily News reported that Shaheen had referred two former members of Starr's staff to the Justice Department for "a possible disciplinary probe." What's up with that?
But Starr is not without his supporters in the media. In a July 30 editorial, The Washington Post opined that Starr had been cleared of "recklessness" on the Hale matter and proceeded to bash certain unnamed "critics" of Starr, calling on them to "admit they were wrong." So which critics was the Post talking about? The AP? Salon? Its own reporters? And is the Post, that bastion of investigative reporting, now willing to accept a press release, rather than asserting the public's right to know the circumstances surrounding another one of Starr's fishing expeditions? A member of the Post's editorial page staff declined to comment, citing company policy.
Then again, it's possible that the release of the Shaheen report would refute some of the details or inferences in the original stories. Confronted with that hypothetical, Conason said, "I'm saving my apologies for when I'm sure they're warranted." Murray Waas, who reported the Dozhier story for Salon with Jonathan Broder, declined to comment.
Stop the presses another veteran newspaperman jumps to cyberspace! Starting August 23, former Newsday reporter Sydney Schanberg will go to work full-time for APB Online. Schanberg has come a long way from his days as a Southeast Asia correspondent for The New York Times. In his new position as editor of special investigations, he will do large-scale investigative projects on white-collar and government- related crime, according to APB Online executive editor Hoag Levins.
APB Multimedia was launched last November by investment banker Marshall Davidson, with the goal of making www. apbonline.com the top source for crime news on the Internet. Levins, formerly the executive editor of Editor & Publisher, now oversees 28 full-time reporters and editors, and expects to double his staff in the next 10 months.
Schanberg will have at his disposal a reporting team that specializes in data analysis, including Bob Port, who came to APB from the Associated Press. "They are the number-crunching geeks," says Levins. "When you plug someone like Syd into that, they should be able to do some massive kinds of projects." Of Schanberg, he says, "He has great ideas. He can roam in any direction he wants to."
The staff generates stories that combine national themes and local angles, and Levins claims they are not afraid to be hard-hitting. "The tendency is to think we're a police trade magazine," he says, "but we are frequently very critical." As examples, he cites a recent exposé about police officers who allegedly lied to collect an award in New Orleans and a four-part series on the cost of providing medical assistance to elderly convicts. Asked whether Schanberg might investigate a controversial subject like the practice of racial profiling, Levins declined to comment.
APB's secret weapon: access to computerized crime data. In the last few years, the Department of Justice has given millions of dollars to law enforcement agencies in several cities, encouraging them to standardize methods of data collection. In the wake of this computer revolution, Levins says, "the ability to grind different kinds of data through algorithms is more sophisticated than ever before." Also, he notes, the computerized data is available much faster than the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports.
Sometimes the authorities cough up data on request, but if not, APB turns to its attorneys and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). "Right now we have 2400 FOIA requests pending through various federal agencies. We FOIA their logs and once we get the logs, we know what documents there are." Cooperation from metropolitan police departments has been mixed. For example, he says, the New York Police Department has been alternately "cranky" and "cooperative."
Whether or not there's a big market for this stuff, APB has found people who share the vision. In addition to advertising and book sales, the company is collecting revenues from the sale of content to newspapers through the Universal Press Syndicate and by providing news feeds to Yahoo! and Snap.com. In July, APB formed a partnership with MSNBC. "These are not just links," says Levins. "They are running our news stories and we are running theirs." Also in July, APB investors launched their second round of financing, which raised $20 million enough to start looking at the inevitable IPO.
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