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Los Angeles Times and its fired investigative reporter: A critical look

Jason Felch has spent the past 10 years working as an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He was a 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist for highlighting mismanagement at the J. Paul Getty Trust. He’d covered sexual abuse within the Boy Scouts of America, the drawbacks of forensic science and all manner of crime-and-justice coverage.

And it all crashed to an end Friday.

The Los Angeles Times published an extraordinary editor’s note that day that not only bailed on a story that Felch had written about Occidental College, it also announced his firing for having an “inappropriate relationship” with a source for the Dec. 7 story. Hardly a run-of-the-mill correction. To complete the beatdown, Occidental yesterday issued a long statement condemning Felch.

The story at the center of all this appeared Dec. 7 in the Times. Titled “College received more sex assault allegations than it reported” and bylined by Felch, it claimed that Occidental had failed to report 27 alleged sexual assault incidents in 2012, possible violations of the crime-disclosure requirements of the federal Clery Act.

Er, no: The editor’s note last Friday confessed that “the 27 incidents did not fall under the law’s disclosure requirements for a variety of reasons.” The impetus for that correction came from Occidental, which, according to the editor’s note, “approached The Times early this month.” That marked an apparent change in policy for the college, which had “declined to comment on specific incidents” for Felch’s original story. Occidental’s criminal reporting practices had triggered investigations by the Education Department, and the school cited those probes for its silence on the matter: “Given the two investigations currently underway by the Department of Education, we believe our students will be best served by the conclusions reached through these comprehensive, thorough, and public reviews,” Occidental spokesman Jim Tranquada told Felch in a statement.

Furthermore, Felch’s story foresaw one of the college’s rebuttals, stating, “It is possible that some of the alleged assaults do not meet federal reporting guidelines because they occurred off campus.”

Occidental’s statement paints a more complicated picture of the reportorial transactions. Its version goes back to October, when Occidental finished an internal review by disclosing mistakes in its Clery Act reporting for 2010 and 2011. Felch had earlier written about sexual assaults at Occidental, and he kept poking around on the story. Tranquada e-mailed Felch on Oct. 18: “If you have information on specific reports that you believe haven’t been included in Occidental’s Clery reports, please let us know so we can check and see if that’s the case,” according to the statement from Occidental.

More than a month later, on Nov. 21, Occidental says it received an e-mail from Felch requesting an interview with three college administrators. On Felch’s agenda, according to the e-mail, were “detailed, specific allegations about each of them. … For fairness’ sake, I would like their points of view/response included. My deadline is tomorrow at noon,” he wrote. Again, that e-mail comes from Occidental’s statement. Occidental declined to comply with Felch’s hurry-up request.

When Felch’s story ran Dec. 7, it pretty much blindsided the college, according to its statement: “Prior to publication, Felch never asked Occidental directly about the premise of his story or told the College about his findings regarding the 27 alleged cases. This failure constituted a breach of basic journalistic ethics, which require reporters to provide subjects of their stories the opportunity to respond to specific allegations.”

Felch, meanwhile, insists that he did just that. In a rebuttal to Occidental that Felch sent this morning to the Erik Wemple Blog, he argues that:

1) Occidental is pushing “false accusations and misstatements.”

2) He pressed Occidental on a wide range of topics related to its reporting of campus sexual assaults — correspondence that Occidental doesn’t mention in its statement. For example:

Regarding the Dec 7th story, I began seeking information and comment from Occidental on Oct. 14th. Suspecting the 27 cases may have been reported anonymously, on Oct 14 I wrote, “I’d like some details on Oxy’s sexual violence anonymous reporting form. When was the system first put in place? Who administers the system? What is the process for including reports submitted here into the Clery data? Has that process changed in recent years? In addition, please provide me with a copy of all data submitted through the form for the past five years, excluding the name of the accused. Finally, has this data been accurately reported in Clery Act reports in years past?”

3) After he received Occidental’s say-nothing statement about letting the federal investigations play out, he followed up with more questions about how the college compiled its Clery reports. Tranquada replied, “Our statement will have to stand as is,” according to Felch.

4) Occidental still hasn’t reported “how many sexual assault reports were made through an anonymous reporting system created in 2009 to encourage assault reporting, nor whether those reports were included in its annual Clery Act disclosures.”

Following publication of the story, Felch and Tranquada had some contentious exchanges. In its statement, Occidental says that the reporter at one point told Tranquada: “I think you’re lying and I’m going to prove it.” No way did he ever say that, says Felch: “That is a complete fabrication.”

In January, Occidental hired crisis communications firm G.F. Bunting+Co., headed by former Los Angeles Times staffer Glenn Bunting, to assist in its pushback. The firm and the college together “documented the fact that Felch’s assertion that the College ‘shelved’ 27 sexual assaults in 2012 was factually incorrect,” says the Occidental statement. Felch’s method in calculating the number, argues the statement, “reflected a basic misunderstanding of College’s reporting obligations under Clery.”

Occidental claims that Bunting met twice in March with Los Angeles Times editor Davan Maharaj to go over the material. Now, in most newsrooms, editors would pass along such material to the reporter of the story in question — the better to vet challenges to the work. Felch, however, claims that such a step never occurred. “Last week, Occidental provided my editors with new information suggesting that, under federal reporting guidelines, the college was not required to report the 27 complaints made in 2012,” Felch notes in a statement sent to the Erik Wemple Blog. “That information has not been shared with me. If the account is true, I deeply regret the error.”

Bolded text added to highlight a towering anomaly: How often does a newspaper keep a reporter from defending his work? When we asked Los Angeles Times spokesperson Nancy Sullivan this question, she replied, “We do not discuss specific details regarding personnel matters.”

Oh, yeah? Then let’s go back to Friday’s editor’s note. It provided the quite specific detail that Felch had “engaged in an inappropriate relationship with someone who was a source for the Dec. 7 story and others Felch had written about Occidental’s handling of sexual assault allegations.” Yikes. It goes on to say that Felch “acknowledged” that after this relationship concluded, “he continued to use the person as a source for future articles.” Yikes once more.

There stands a withering allegation for any reporter who wishes to stay in journalism — that he indulged a (presumably romantic) relationship with a source and leveraged it for stories.

Except Felch offers a different perspective on that time line. In late December, says Felch, he “entered into an inappropriate relationship with a confidential source that lasted several weeks. When the relationship began, I stopped relying upon the person as a source. None of the subsequent articles published in the LA Times relied upon the source.”

When asked to comment on these two versions of events, Sullivan referred the Erik Wemple Blog back to the paper’s statement.

Are the positions of the Los Angeles Times and of Felch irreconcilable? Perhaps not. Felch says that all subsequent stories didn’t rely on this source, while the newspaper contends that Felch acknowledged working on “future” stories that rely on the source. Both could be correct: Felch is an investigative reporter, after all, and he could have been using notes or documents from initial contacts with the inappropriate source for far-off projects.

Exactly what happened between Felch and his source matters a great deal to the ethics of the situation. If their relationship blossomed after the Dec. 7 story was published and didn’t color any additional stories for the Los Angeles Times — well, that’s not an optimal set of ethical circumstances, but it doesn’t appear to rate as grounds for dismissal, either. Felch’s statement reads, in part: “On Friday, I was dismissed for creating the appearance of a conflict of interest.” He declined to speak on the record beyond his statement.

What appears to have rankled the newspaper was how it discovered the relationship. Though Felch insists he “voluntarily” disclosed it, the newspaper, by its own accounting, didn’t learn about it until it began investigating the complaint that Occidental had lodged “early this month.” So: The relationship began in late December, lasted several weeks and wasn’t divulged to Felch’s superiors until March. Too late.

In the editor’s note, Maharaj cited the “inappropriate relationship with a source and the failure to disclose it earlier” as a “a professional lapse of the kind that no news organization can tolerate. … Our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information — in appearance as well as in fact.”

The Los Angeles Times’s ethics guidelines focus on financial and political conflicts of interest but also carry this catch-all provision: “Guidelines cannot cover every conceivable conflict of interest. If doubt exists, staff members should consult a supervisor.” And fast!

For the record, Felch’s full statement:

In late December, I entered into an inappropriate relationship with a confidential source that lasted several weeks. When the relationship began, I stopped relying upon the person as a source. None of the subsequent articles published in the LA Times relied upon the source.

Weeks ago, I voluntarily disclosed the relationship to my editors and cooperated with their investigation. On Friday, I was dismissed for creating the appearance of a conflict of interest. I accept full responsibility for what I did and regret the damage it has done to my family and my colleagues at one of the nation’s great newspapers.

On December 7th, weeks before the start of that relationship, I wrote an article that stated, among other things, that Occidental college had failed to disclose 27 sexual assaults in 2012. The claim was based upon a confidential Clery Act complaint now being investigated by federal authorities. The allegation was supported by other documents and interviews that indicated Occidental’s dean of students had told faculty in the fall of 2012 that there had been 34 sexual assaults that year. Occidental disclosed seven.

Before publication, Occidental declined to comment on the allegation, and refused to make the dean or other college officials available for interviews. For three months after the story appeared, Occidental raised no objection to the account. The college had previously acknowledged failing to disclose two dozen other sexual assaults, in violation of federal law.

Last week, Occidental provided my editors with new information suggesting that, under federal reporting guidelines, the college was not required to report the 27 complaints made in 2012. That information has not been shared with me. If the account is true, I deeply regret the error.

My other coverage of Occidental and other colleges’ failure to disclose sexual assaults has not been challenged, including the assertion, also made in the Dec 7th story, that the school has failed to disclose sexual assault claims made anonymously since 2009.

In my ten years as an investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times, I have always held accuracy and fairness as my highest duty to our readers. Despite my errors, I hope to uphold that standard again.