Cop corruption probe sparks newspaper feud [UPDATE]

A spiked story is at the center of a bitter fight between Philadelphia's two dailies

PHILADELPHIA, PA — This city’s two rival dailies, the broadsheet Inquirer and tabloid Daily News, share an owner, a website, and now more than ever, mutual enmity and distrust. 

Last month, the papers’ owner and publisher, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, overruled Inquirer editor Bill Marimow and killed a major page-one story at the behest of Daily News editor Michael Days. The Inquirer story explored why federal prosecutors did not bring charges against police officer Thomas Tolstoy, accused of sexual assault by three women in “Tainted Justice,” the Daily News’ 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation. The spiked Inquirer story also conveyed allegations, however, that Daily News reporters Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker had acted unethically in their interactions with one of Tolstoy’s alleged victims.

Ruderman and Laker had been confronted with those allegations not long before the story was spiked, when Inquirer reporters walked across the hallway separating the two newsrooms for an interview. “Our eyes popped out of our head because we were stunned,” says Ruderman. “The allegations were just wild and crazy.”

The killing of the story, reported soon after it happened by former Inquirer journalist Ralph Cipriano, set off recriminations in the newsrooms—and beyond.

“Tainted Justice” is the Daily News’ most celebrated achievement in recent years, and a major shot in the arm for a paper that lives in perpetual fear of being shut down. The series offered evidence of widespread misconduct in a police narcotics squad, including fraudulent search warrant applications and the looting of immigrant-owned bodegas in addition to the alleged sexual assaults. The articles became the foundation of a book by Laker and Ruderman, published this year to favorable reviews and slated to become a TV series starring Sarah Jessica Parker.

Now, the series is at the center of controversy. Exactly what the reporters are alleged to have done remains unclear and in dispute, but public discussion has focused on claims that they paid for utility bills, food, and other items for one of Tolstoy’s alleged victims. The two Daily News journalists, who deny any wrongdoing, say they were confronted with those and also more serious allegations by Inquirer reporters. (UPDATE, 8/22/14: The Inquirer today published the killed story. In an email to CJR, Lenfest said the story ran “partially because of your article and the overall controversy on the article not being published.”)

What the Inquirer has not done, apparently, is question the Daily News’ main finding that there was misconduct in the squad. But the local police union, which has campaigned against “Tainted Justice” for years, seized on news of the spiked story to attack the reporters’ credibility. And the police commissioner, who initially had backed the investigation of his officers, has also begun raising questions about the paper’s ethics. The controversy comes as the local district attorney—who, like federal prosecutors, chose not to bring charges against police in connection to the searches or bodega raids—has not yet announced whether his office will bring sexual-assault charges against Tolstoy.

The conflict is another bruising battle at a newspaper company that has in recent years suffered through perhaps more persistent dysfunction than any other, accompanied by one of the steepest financial declines in the industry. Lenfest’s decision to kill the story came just months after he and billionaire Lewis Katz won a bitter ownership struggle, wresting the papers’ parent company from former co-owner and political boss George Norcross—only to have Katz die in an airplane crash soon after. Now Lenfest faces a high-profile, high-stakes feud between his two newsrooms—one in which the Daily News seems ready to believe the worst about motives at the Inquirer, which says it is just trying to do a thorough job covering one of the city’s most important stories.

Lenfest, who has publicly stood by the Daily News’ reporting in the ensuing controversy, sent a brief statement but declined to be interviewed for this story. Several journalists at the Daily News—Laker, Ruderman, editor Michael Days, and news editor Gar Josephagreed to an on-the-record interview. Marimow declined an interview request, but CJR spoke to a number of Inquirer newsroom sources who requested anonymity because they said they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Fully reinvestigating the allegedly rogue narcotics squad and the Daily News’ reporting was beyond the scope of this story, and the conversations with newsroom sources did not resolve definitively whether Laker and Ruderman did anything improper in their relationship with the woman, why no criminal charges have been brought, or what was in the spiked Inquirer story, which CJR has not seen. However, they do shed some light on what’s in dispute—and what’s at stake.

A key interview becomes heated

To follow what happened here, it’s helpful to understand that while all the alleged police corruption involved one squad, there are two sets of allegations and investigations.

One set of complaints focuses on whether police lied on search-warrant applications and stole from store owners. Inquirer reporters Mike Newall and Aubrey Whelan broke the news in April that federal and local prosecutors had both decided not to bring criminal charges in connection with those allegations.

The second set of complaints consists of the sexual-assault allegations against Tolstoy, one of the officers on the squad, and it was reported that no federal charges would be brought in those cases either. The claims made by one of his alleged victims, whom the Daily News had called “Naomi,” had been reviewed by a federal grand jury, but no indictment was issued; at the time, it was reported that one factor in that decision was DNA evidence that did not match Tolstoy’s. The grand jury did not review charges from two other women even though they, unlike Naomi, had not only gone on the record but spoke publicly in chilling videos posted online by the Daily News. An investigation by police Internal Affairs reportedly had not found sufficient evidence to submit those cases to federal prosecutors; lawyers for the women found fault with the photo identification process used by investigators.

A public outcry followed—including, loudly, in the pages of the Daily News—and District Attorney Seth Williams quickly announced that his office would investigate the sexual-assault allegations. It’s unclear if the investigation remains open. D.A. spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson said the office would not comment on an investigation unless charges are filed.

Then, on May 15, Newall and Whelan published another story that explored in detail why no charges had been filed in relation to the bodega and search-warrant allegations. They reported that the investigation “fell apart because witnesses were reluctant or not credible, evidence was scant, and an accused officer [Tolstoy] who the FBI believed was about to cooperate with them changed his mind.”

The May 15 article “did not reflect poorly at all on the Daily News,” says one Inquirer source. “If anything, it raised questions about investigators’ thoroughness with the bodega owners,” and “questions about how hard it is to prove wrongdoing, especially when people of lower economic class or people with criminal backgrounds are involved.”

A story looking into Tolstoy’s case, say Inquirer sources, was the next logical step in the paper’s reporting.

Those sources also say journalists at the paper initially had no idea the investigation would lead them to reporting on their sister paper. But as Inky reporters started looking into the Tolstoy case, what they say they found was at odds with the account given by the Daily News reporters.

“It became clear that the Inquirer couldn’t write about [why no charges had been brought] without writing about, and reporting how, the Daily News reporters’ role in the case affected the outcome,” one Inquirer source said.

That set the stage for the interview on June 25, when Newall and Whelan crossed the hall to talk to Laker and Ruderman. According to Laker and Ruderman’s recollection of the discussion—which they acknowledge is shaky since they became upset—the Inquirers questions were apparently based in part on FBI notes from an interview with Naomi, a document known as a 302 report.

It turned into a heated conversation. Based only on the the questions they say they were asked, Laker and Ruderman tell CJR that Naomi apparently claimed that the reporters had paid hundreds of dollars for her lawyer, and purchased three expensive meals and a new crib for her child (plus a U-Haul to deliver it). And more.

“One of the allegations that Mike Newall told me is that I drove Naomi to an adoption center to get her children adopted out,” said Laker, incredulous. “Like somehow that I didn’t think she was worthy of being a mother.”

Other allegations, say Laker and Ruderman, include that they had paid Naomi’s utility and cellphone bills, and that she had never, as the Daily News reported, been threatened by police.

In Busted, Laker and Ruderman’s book, they write about doing things that “crossed the line” for another source, an informant who first brought allegations of police misconduct. Ruderman writes of buying him groceries, helping him look for a lawyer, even buying a scooter for his son’s birthday. But gifts to that source, Ruderman says, came well after reporting was complete and amid the source’s persistent complaints that the stories had caused his life to fall apart, even as the reporters basked in the limelight.

In Naomi’s case, Laker and Ruderman say they did not buy a single expensive meal (though periodically picking up the tab for a meal with a source is not uncommon). They did buy, they say, a slice of pizza, a soda, and some snacks for her kids.

“We went to this little bodega and I bought bread, and a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly,” says Ruderman. And I definitely bought strawberries for them, ‘cause I’m always worried that my kids aren’t having fruit and vegetables.

Any other allegations, says Laker, “are absolutely false.”

Laker also described a far more serious allegation conveyed by the Inquirer reporters: that she and Ruderman had coached Naomi to identify Tolstoy from a surveillance video of police during one of the suspect bodega raids. She also says that they were accused of encouraging Naomi to lie to investigators, though she could not describe specifics.

Laker says they did no such thing. She says that Naomi, like the other two alleged victims reported on by the Daily News, quickly identified Tolstoy as the perpetrator when they showed her the video.

“You hear his voice first, and she said that she recognized him by voice alone,” says Laker. “She’d never forget it, and she was 150-percent certain it was him.”

One of the claims allegedly made by Naomi was familiar to the reporters. Laker says that they first heard that the woman had said she and Ruderman had paid her utility bill in 2009, while they were reporting the series. Days, the Daily News editor, says he asked Laker and Ruderman at the time whether it was true, that they denied it, and he dropped it.

Amid calls by the Fraternal Order of Police for a media investigation, Days says in an email that recently “the company did review the allegations” and that after an “internal review of the reporters’ conduct, and given that neither the FOP nor anyone else has provided evidence of unethical reporting, both our publisher, Gerry Lenfest, and myself remain confident that the reporters’ work was thorough, accurate, fair, and ethical.”

In an e-mail, Lenfest echoed Days’ statement, writing that they “did conduct an internal investigation on the FOP’s claims against Ruderman and Laker and were satisfied that the claims were not substantiated.” Lenfest did not say whether or not he addressed other allegations conveyed in the Inquirer story, or what the internal investigation consisted of.

For their part, Inquirer sources would not reveal any detailed content of the paper’s unpublished work, and would not confirm or deny the existence of any specific allegations conveyed to Daily News reporters. But one source denied that the story was “making a big deal about meals being bought,” and described Laker and Ruderman’s account of the allegations as “incomplete and inaccurate.”

They also say that the Daily News is attempting to have it both ways with Naomi’s credibility.

“The Daily News is in the indefensible position of saying that the woman is to be believed when she makes accusations to investigators [about police] but not to be believed when she provides information about the reporters’ actions,” the source said.

Ruderman says the two situations are not analogous. Their reporting on Tolstoy’s alleged sexual assaults was based on interviews with three separate women, and with police officials, not just an account of what Naomi had said. “Context matters, and so does corroboration,” she says.

Inquirer sources say, in turn, that their reporting was based not just on the 302 report, but on other documents and interviews with people involved in the investigation. One described the story as going beyond the requirements of a typical investigation, and of being “thorough, complete, newsworthy, and important.”

It remains unclear what exactly was in the Inquirer story, and Inquirer sources told CJR they believe no one at the Daily News had actually read the article. But Laker says that Days, the Daily News editor, did read portions of the story, and that material about the Daily News was contained in the nut graf.

Days confirmed Tuesday evening that he had read portions of a draft of the story. “I did read enough of a draft of the story to determine that it was full of unsubstantiated allegations that seemed based on the questions that the Inky reporters had earlier asked Wendy and Barbara,” he wrote by email.

In any case, before the story got to print, Days prevailed on Lenfest to kill it.

‘How did this investigation lead to nothing?’

Two days after Ralph Cipriano reported on the killed story, the controversy was in the news again. John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, who has attacked the Daily News frequently since “Tainted Justice” began in 2009, held a press conference in which he said he had “credible information”—from sources he will not identify—not only that the reporters had paid utility bills and given food and other gifts to Naomi, but that the paper had “intentionally fabricated” parts of its coverage. He also criticized the newspaper company for killing the Inquirer story.

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who had initially taken a hard line against the accused officers, jumped into the fray the same day, telling the Inquirer that his “understanding” was that “the reporters actually paid utility bills, bought gifts, dinner, and things of that nature…. It would seem to me that would possibly taint the investigation.” Like McNesby, he called for an investigation by the papers of Laker and Ruderman’s reporting.

McNesby in particular has tried to use the controversy, and the lack of any criminal charges, to discredit all of the allegations against police. “All the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing,” he said at the July press conference. An FOP official says the union has written to the Pulitzer Committee to request an inquiry of the Daily News reporting.

Few outside the FOP, however, doubt there was police misconduct. The city has paid out at least $1.7 million in settlements related to the scandal, according to the Inquirer. The police department’s Internal Affairs Division has sustained multiple allegations against officers in the narcotics squad, including charges that they fabricated evidence on a search warrant application, searched a van without a warrant, provided gifts to informants, and lied to investigators. Ramsey—who as recently as April described the criminal case against the accused officers as “good“—in May fired one officer and suspended three others, including Tolstoy, in connection with the IAD findings. (The FOP has filed a grievance seeking to have the fired officer reinstated.)

And the killed story “does not question the allegations against Tolstoy,” said one Inquirer source. “The entire premise was, [there were] three strikingly similar allegations by three women who didn’t know this man: How did this investigation lead to nothing?”

As for Commissioner Ramsey, his move to publicly question the reporters came as a surprise, say Laker and Ruderman, since the investigation had been jointly conducted by the FBI and the police Internal Affairs Division. Ramsey, they say, should have had access to a document like the 302 for years—meaning that if there were anything to the allegations, he should have known about it all along.

Says Ruderman, “Either [Ramsey is] trying to back out of something for political reasons, or reasons I don’t understand, or he thinks the Inquirer has more than what his own investigators have dug up in their own reports. This was a joint effort all along.”

Latest chapter in a relationship marked by mistrust

As the Daily News journalists defend their coverage, they’re also speculating about how they became the target. A host of local and federal law enforcement offices had access to the case files, they say—and have motives to leak something damaging, either to hurt the paper or insulate themselves from criticism in the wake of the decision not to bring charges.

Inquirer sources, though, deny that the story was the product of a single leak, and say that reporters at the paper worked painstakingly to assemble the case files and speak to people involved in the investigation.

Daily News journalists also see something sinister in the Inquirers pursuit of the story. “I do think that this is a case where our enemies are pushing hard for the Inquirer to write a story that smears our reputations,” says Ruderman. “And the Inquirer is happy to believe it, or wanting to believe it, without doing a whole lot of work to disbelieve it, because of something deeper.”

That “something deeper,” as Daily News journalists see it, is an unwillingness at the Inquirer to admit that its tabloid sibling scooped it on the cop-corruption story and won laurels for it. “They got their ass kicked on that story,” says editor Michael Days, who used to work at the Inquirer, adding, “They just can’t believe it could happen.” (Busted, the book Laker and Ruderman wrote, included a not-very-flattering characterization of the Inquirer and its efforts to catch up.)

The newsrooms’ feud over the story is the latest chapter in a relationship marked by mistrust, one in which the Daily News feels its very future is threatened. It came out earlier this year that amid the ownership battle, an Inquirer journalist had urged Katz, her long-time companion, to consider “possible elimination or curtailment” of the Daily News.

Daily News reporters see the Inquirers attitude as being set at the top. Ruderman recalled a hallway encounter she says she had with Bill Marimow, the Inquirer’s editor, a few days after their interview with Inquirer reporters. In her account, she asked how Marimow could let such allegations run in the Inquirer; he responded, in part, she says, by pointing out that Ruderman had admitted in Busted to giving gifts to the Daily News initial source. (Marimow did not respond to an email laying out Ruderman’s account, and declined multiple requests to comment for this story.)

Sources at the Inquirer see this as absurd conspiracy theorizing.

“This came about out of simply trying to find out why an officer with three seemingly very credible accusations of sexual assault was going back to the street,” says an Inquirer source. “There hasn’t been an explanation by the city cops, by the federal cops, or by anyone about why that is. The Inquirer story was simply an effort to shed light on what happened, and to provide information to allow readers to make up their own minds.”

A fight to secure reputations

Of course, readers have not gotten that opportunity, thanks to a decision by Lenfest—the owner who dropped a newsroom non-interference pledge after winning an ownership struggle, and has recently dropped the “interim” from his publisher title.

Ultimately, it remains impossible to appraise whether it was a wise decision to kill a story unseen by the public and described so differently by the two newsrooms. But one of the Daily News own columnists, Stu Bykofsky, wrote this month that it was “a mistake” to spike the piece, even as he defended his colleagues’ work.

“Not publishing the ‘expose,’ unless it was libelous, opens the door to the FOP making crazy charges and feeling it is up against the journalistic version of the ‘blue line,’” he wrote.

Indeed, with the Inquirer story unpublished, and no criminal charges filed, the loudest voice at the moment belongs to the FOP—which seems to be enjoying the opportunity to shout about a “coverup” and a “double standard,” and go after reporters whose muckraking caused them so much recent agita.

In the wake of the decision not to prosecute the allegedly corrupt cops, all the players are fighting to secure their reputations. And everyone wants to write the decisive ending of a story that appears, for now, to remain up for grabs.

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Daniel Denvir is a reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.