Panel Discussion: State and Local Government
Joe Williams, City Editor, The Boston Globe, Moderator
As many of you no doubt realize, city, county and state governments form the cornerstone of a lot of reporting that goes on, both for newspapers and television. We're talking about police departments, county commissions, state legislatures, municipal offices, sheriff departments, all those agencies and organizations that have functions in daily lives of not only our viewers and our readers, but of ourselves as well.
To many, it's obvious why these agencies need watching, particularly the police department. The large example in front of us right now is the Abner Louima trial in New York City and the Amadou Diallo shooting that happened many weeks ago. As evidence of police brutality and how these incidents came to be, both cases demonstrate the need and the reason for watchdog journalism and the reason for examining source relationship with those agencies.
We also are exploring agencies such as sheriff departments, the people who are entrusted to take care of prisoners, and some Third World conditions and human rights violations that take place behind bars. That's an area of government that a lot of people don't necessarily think about, particularly when it pertains to prisoners.
And county government in developing things like football stadiums, housing, tax codes, tax rates. In particular, one of our panelists will talk about her exploration of corruption not only in the big cities and the skyscrapers of downtown, but also in the suburbs, where a lot of people pretty much take government for granted, and pretty much take good government for granted.
So the central question before the panelists today is: How do you become a watchdog while maintaining your journalistic independence, particularly in such a diverse range of areas as far as government is concerned?
Investigative reporter for The New York Daily News
[William K. Rashbaum has covered crime and criminal justice issues in New York for more than 10 years, first with The Hearst Newspapers, and then for three years each at UPI, Reuters and New York Newsday, where he wrote about organized crime. A New York native, he joined The Daily News in 1995 and has continued to write about crime and corruption in New York City, focusing on the Police Department and organized crime, as well as doing longer investigative stories.]
At The Daily News we've spent a lot of time writing about the Diallo shooting, obviously. It's been one of the biggest stories in the city, and we're looking towards the upcoming Senate campaign with [Mayor] Rudy Giuliani being expected to run.
We've spent a lot of time focusing on the police unit that was involved in the shooting. We've tried to look at their history, at other things that they've been involved in, and how their cases work out in court as a way of approaching that incident from a perspective that lets us look at how it happened, what the circumstances were in terms of the management of the police department that led to that kind of incident.
Ask Publishers About Getting Too Close
I hope I won't be considered presumptuous to make a suggestion to Mr. Kovach and the Nieman Foundation, that, if they haven't done it already, they gather a similar group of people together, reporters, editors, owners and publishers, and give them an opportunity to think about what happens when they get too close to the subjects of their stories or the stories that appear in their newspapers.
The relationship between reporter and source is a delicate one, and we're here because, to best serve our readers, we should continually examine how we handle these kinds of relationships. The same can certainly be said for the relationships between management and ownership of newspapers in the subjects of the stories that appear or, sometimes more importantly, don't appear in their publications.
While many people argue that reporters have insufficient independent oversight, some might say there's less scrutiny of owners and publishers.
As I thought about talking today, I tried to figure out what from my experiences I can share that will be valuable or thought-provoking. New York City is a tough, incestuous town when it comes to reporting on police departments and law enforcement in general, and the beat reporters who write about the police department usually cover both crime in the city and the department as an agency.
So one day you can be writing about management failures that preceded the recent Diallo shooting, corruption, or the police commissioner taking a freebie junket to the Oscars. The next day you're chasing desperately sought-after details of a high profile crime that's captivated your editors, if not the city.
Some could argue you're not biting the hand that feeds, but you're cannibalizing it, and this is a town where one reporter at a major daily writes for the police union newsletter and sells T-shirts for a group that benefits the families of slain cops. Another was called Bratton's Boswell in print because a columnist felt his relationship with that police commissioner was too close.
Another columnist deftly killed a young reporter's story about a top police official's drug-addicted daughter. She was a regular in Lower East Side shooting galleries and roamed around there in his department car, complete with police radios, phones, and lights and sirens. The columnist and the official, needless to say, were good friends.
At the other end of the spectrum is a man who wrote a laudatory column about the priest who baptized his son and later turned the cleric into column fodder when he felt he kept black youngsters off a local Little League team.
But there's a lot of room between, and that's where most of us work. While one could argue that it makes sense to divide up these kinds of responsibilities in a sort of good cop/bad cop scenario where some reporters write about the department as an agency and others cover crime, that doesn't seem to be the way we do it in New York, even though some of the papers in the city have five, six people working on the beat.
But I'm fortunate that I do mostly enterprise stuff. Nonetheless, I think a lot of the beat reporters do a very good job holding the department's feet to the fire. Most everybody's been doing it for a long time and we work in a highly competitive environment where we face the competing obligations to our readers on the one hand and our loyalties, professional and sometimes personal, to the people who provide us with information, sometimes very important information, on the other.
No Way to Maintain Complete Independence
We maintain our distance from our sources; we have to maintain our distance from our sources, and more specifically from their agenda or their spin, but still make them feel comfortable enough to share with us information that in some cases could cost them their jobs, their reputations, or even get them arrested. Sometimes a source or a public official or a law enforcement official becomes a subject, and sometimes we have to write stories about them that could be termed unflattering at best.
There's no way to maintain complete independence, at least in my mind, from your sources and still be really effective as a watchdog. But I think that we have to continually work to limit our dependence and I think we have to do that in obvious ways, having many, many sources over as wide a range of areas and disciplines as possible, sources at the top of institutions as well as at the bottom in the trenches, reading absolutely everything you can get your hands on so you become as expert and knowledgeable about the area that you're covering, and just using eyes, ears and minds, rather than relying on what we're told.
These are all basic things that I guess we all do as reporters. A colleague of mine who was recently working on the Diallo shooting, which happened in February, told me last week that he hadn't-and he's a fine reporter and he's done great work-that he hadn't been to the scene of the shooting until just a few days ago. When he went up there and saw the physical scene, he actually lay down in the vestibule where Amadou Diallo more or less was lying, in an effort to settle in his mind whether or not, given some of the autopsy reports, the man was shot while he was lying down or whether most of the shots were fired as he was standing.
Just by going up there and maybe getting a little embarrassed lying down in a vestibule in the Bronx, I think he settled in his own mind issues that lawyers have been arguing about for two months, and I think oftentimes those are things we don't do enough.
Best Work When Sources Shut You Out
My experience is that the best work I've ever done is when I've been completely shut out by the agency or institution that I'm covering, maybe with sources at the very, very bottom levels, maybe on the outside, peripheral agencies, because when you're shut out, you just have to work harder and you have to dig harder, and that's when I've found things that I wouldn't have found otherwise, or wouldn't have come out otherwise.
On the Diallo shooting, we were trying to find out the outcome of some of the cases that the street-crime unit cops, the cops that had been involved in the shooting, had been involved in there. Their sort of claim to fame, their purpose, was to get guns off the street. We tried to get the police department to tell us how those cases worked out and they wouldn't, and we ended up finding out that 50 percent of the gun cases that they made were dismissed in court.
Because those cases are sealed, it's hard to determine what the reasons for the dismissals were. There were a lot of potential reasons, but we did find a number of published court decisions where the searches were bad, the stops were unconstitutional, and we found cases where over and over again-in one case, an officer, four times, he was a supervisor, a sergeant, had cases dismissed because of his testimony. In several cases judges wrote in written decisions that the police officer's testimony was incredible. It's very rare in New York for a judge to actually put that on paper; they may dismiss a case, but to actually write down on paper that a cop's testimony is incredible, which is short of perjury, short of saying he's lying, but it's pretty harsh.
If the police department had answered our question and said, "This is how many cases were dismissed, this is what happened with these decisions," we never would have gotten that far.
City Hall reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer
[Alison Grant, a reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, has covered Cleveland City Hall since 1996. In addition to political reporting, focusing on the administration of Mayor Michael R. White and City Council, her ongoing coverage includes following construction of a $283 million football stadium and a $600 million expansion of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport
Previously she covered a number of Cleveland suburbs. In one, Beachwood, a one-year investigation of corrupt dealings between contractors and city officials resulted in the conviction of 10 officials -including the mayor and service director - and significant reforms. The reporting resulted in a Pulitzer Prize a finalist in the Beat Reporting category in 1996 and a first place award from the Associated Press in Ohio for Public Service Reporting.]
I wanted to talk to you today about some work I did a couple years ago in a suburb of Cleveland. I cover Cleveland City Hall now, but this was in Beachwood. When I thought about it for this conference, I realized that I had worked closely with about six or seven sources throughout the year that this investigation went on.
The first tip came in from a contractor. His name was Dominic Calabrese, and he said he'd been cheated out of a contract to perform emergency repairs, street and sewer repairs, in Beachwood, and that the contract had been steered to his brother, Tony. [Laughter] Well, it was true, it turned out to be true. And that Tony had earned millions of dollars doing this emergency work for 15 years.
He sounded very bitter and he sounded conspiratorial, so when I first got this tip it seemed like a long shot, it seemed perhaps it wasn't true. But within a year, nine people had been convicted. The state auditor had told these people to repay the city $1.7 million.
Don't Dismiss Tips
So I guess my point here is a very simple one, but that is simply to not dismiss tips when they come in. When you're a beat reporter, I think a lot of times it's hard to chase down everything that comes by, but in this case it did prove fruitful.
Once he had set things in motion, and I had a few stories in print, I had a key element that helped me throughout the year, and that was I got help from the Beachwood Police. The police saw that The Plain Dealer could provide them the political cover they needed to begin investigating the corruption in their city that they had long suspected.
So this to me is one way, and perhaps it's a simple idea, to get closely held information and I think yet not compromise yourself, and that is to demonstrate your usefulness to the people that you want to have as sources.
My relationship with the two detectives was symbiotic. Over the course of the year it became more and more the case that the detectives and I appeared to be working toward the same end. At times we did trade information. Some people would say that you should never deal with law enforcement officials this way, but I think some exchange of information is all right.
For example, it became apparent after a while that my key source inside City Hall who spoke to me only on background was also helping the police. Without either of us ever naming the source, it was clear it was the same person. So for me, it was a way to check what I heard against what they heard.
Don't Let Sources Use You
But I also had to be careful that the newspaper was not being used by them merely as a foil for their agenda. They had a long-standing dislike of the mayor's polices and his management style, and it was also clear to me that they were just leaking the parts of their findings that they wanted in print so that they could use that as cover to continue their investigation.
Also, there came a time when I was looking at housing inspections performed by Beachwood's building commissioner in neighboring towns when he was on the clock in Beachwood. The cops didn't want me to go after this story; one of them was a friend of the building commissioner, vacationed with him in Las Vegas, and ultimately quit his police job and went to work in the building department where he still is. The reason the relationship continued after that, even though we printed a story about that, is that both of us, the police and I, had more to lose than to gain by cutting off contact.
I was lucky in Beachwood. I feel like I worked with a couple of honest police officers and I worked with a very talkative prosecutor, so I had a lot of good luck.
This prosecutor was a friendly source, but the caveat with him was that he wanted to run for judge. He is a judge now, he's a muni judge in Cleveland. That was one reason he sought publicity for the case, so it helped to be aware of his future ambitions. We traded some information, we gossiped about Cleveland politics, and that kept the relationship oiled, I guess.
Key Source Was a Whistleblower
But the key source for these stories was a whistleblower in City Hall, and I met her after the first few stories were out in the women's bathroom at City Hall. I had never noticed her before and I didn't know her name. Her only words to me then were, "You're on the right track," and she disappeared into a stall. [Laughter] Really, it was like out of a movie.
I began calling her at home and she more than anyone told me where to look, what questions to ask, what records to get. We never met privately in person until after the investigation was over, by which time she had retired and we met just once for lunch. It was totally a relationship by telephone, although I would see her at City Hall when I went there, but we didn't acknowledge each other.
With her, a couple aspects of getting closely held information applied. One was spending a lot of time listening to her. She was discontented with her job and angry that the mayor had picked someone besides her to be finance director. She had worked at City Hall for many years and felt that she knew more about the city's finances than anyone else there, so she was partly talking to me to settle a grudge, but mostly she was a whistleblower trying to stop something she saw was wrong.
And yet, as I said, we always spoke by phone and that's where she gave me information, and so I was lucky in that regard, too. The contact with her was one in which it was pretty easy to maintain good independence. It was an arm's-length relationship to begin with, and since everything she told me was not for attribution it had to be verified through documents and on-the-record interviews with other people.
Several sources were fired employees, so their information had to be put in that context, but these people turned out to give accurate leads. One told me about the building commissioner, and then there was an ex-employee of a landscape contractor who told me how this landscape contractor had bilked the city. He ended up convicted, too.
Planting Tulips in the Winter
In the case of the landscape worker, it was necessary to convince him why his voice was important, and that was because he knew details of how the contractor operated, performing make-work jobs such as planting tulip bulbs in the dead of winter by using an auger to drill holes in the frozen soil. [Laughter]
At the same time, he was a very nervous source, and so even though I had to convince him to speak, I also had to show him that he would not be a central focus of the story, because he was worried about ruining his chances of getting hired on by another company. So I did that by explaining to him that his quotes and information would just be a few paragraphs in the story and that seemed to reassure him.
Another source worked in the service department and knew about wrongdoing by his boss, the service director. Yet this employee was dirty himself. He paid Tony Calabrese to install a driveway at his home with only a few dollars in whiskey for the asphalt group.
Dealing With Minor Characters
Purists may not agree with this, but I think you sometimes have to deal with minor characters who did bad things in order to get to the people higher up who are orchestrating the corruption.
Tony Calabrese started to talk late in the investigation, and that was tricky because by then we had written a number of stories about him and he was also a main target of the police. But he said he wanted his version out because he was tired of being made a scapegoat for a system in which, he said, city officials were colluding, and it turned out they were.
But he was also facing likely indictment and may have figured that by getting his stories in print, in effect trying part of his case in print, would help him. He actually talked to me the week the prosecutor was presenting his case to the grand jury. But it still seemed to me fair to publicize his claims. From what I could gather, they were probably true, and plus which the whole situation had started with publicizing his brother's allegations against him.
Understanding the Subtext
A lot of these things, I think, reporters do intuitively, without really thinking about it, and so you have to write them down. It does help to understand the subtext and agendas as much as possible, because there are naturally so many agendas under foot, I think it helps to be as candid as possible with sources on how you expect the story to play. Despite sources' agendas, the reporter is writing for the reader and shaping a story that may not be what the sources expect, unless they are told.
Despite the agendas and beats, the cops' need for cover, the prosecutor's political ambition, the City Hall source's anger over losing out on a promotion, the anger of Dominic Calabrese over his brother's contract with the city, almost everything they told me was borne out by reporting and the police. Despite their individual grievances and aspirations, they were also interested in shedding light on the corruption, and I think this is one way for reporters to draw information from sources, and that's by having a shared sense that an injustice is happening.
Cleveland City Hall has been a frustrating experience because the mayor is very difficult to deal with. In the three years I've been covering City Hall, he has gone from being occasionally available for interviews to now, after three years, he doesn't even return phone calls and the press secretary doesn't return phone calls. Also, City Hall employees, from directors on down, are in fear of losing their jobs if they talk on the record.
I have developed a few background sources among city employees and a number of former employees who speak on and off the record, so my main City Hall sources are the 21 council members, half closely aligned with the mayor, and the others mayoral critics, and are accessible, returning calls routinely on the record. The way to keep information flowing is to be as evenhanded as possible, talking to members from both sides of the political continuum.
One final thought. Even though that operates, I think that for me there are always people who seem like the good guys in the system and I seek them out more than other people. I use them as sounding boards, not necessarily for stories; I have faith and confidence in them. And then, having cultivated them, they are likely to give me information.
Reporter, The Philadelphia Inquirer
[Loretta Tofani won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1983 for her series on men getting gang raped in a jail in Prince George's County, Maryland. Tofani wrote the series while covering the courthouse beat for The Washington Post, where she worked from 1978 through August 1987.
[In 1987, she left the Post for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she currently works. At the Inquirer, she wrote about AIDS for four years She was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1989.
[From October 1992 through January 1996 she was The Philadelphia Inquirer's Asia correspondent, based in Beijing, China. She flew throughout Asia - from India to Japan – to cover events and tell stories of crises in the lives of Asians.
[Since 1997, she has covered the gambling beat for The Philadelphia Inquirer.]
During my fourth year as a reporter for The Washington Post, way back in 1982, I covered a suburban courthouse beat, the Prince George's County courts. Predictably, I wrote about a lot of trials and sentencings, but I was always on the lookout for something more enterprising and a story that had some sense of injustice to it.
I found a very promising one in '82, and I ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize for the story for local specialized investigative reporting, the category at the time, but looking back I sometimes think it was a miracle that that story [about the rape of jail inmates] was published, both because of problems with sources and problems also in the newsroom, because editors simply weren't interested.
Yes, it's important to be independent of your sources, but you also need to maintain independence in the newsroom to get the job done. More on that later.
About the story: Most of the rape victims I wrote about had not been convicted of any crime. They were in jail while awaiting trial and most of them had been charged with what seemed to be relatively minor offenses-shoplifting, trespassing, drunk driving. They included a waiter, a cook, a high school student, an Air Force lieutenant.
The rapists, on the other hand, were men who were convicted armed robbers and murderers who generally were repeat offenders, and the vast majority of rape victims and rapists were heterosexual.
In the overcrowded, poorly designed, and poorly staffed jail, officials failed to separate the violent inmates from the non-violent ones, and the people who were awaiting trial from those who already had been convicted of crimes.
In addition, jail rapists often hung black trashbags over cells to block the view of guards, and guards didn't enforce prison rules preventing this kind of thing from happening.
As a result of the series, the jail changed its policies, separating the convicted criminals from the legally innocent and the violent from the non-violent. The jail also hired more guards and enforced its own rules about the guards having a clear view, and county residents approved a bond issue to build a new larger jail. Many fewer rapes were a result.
All Victims and All Rapists Named
The series was unusual at the time because all the victims were named and the men who raped them were also named and quoted. The series consisted of about a dozen case studies of men who had been gang raped, and within each case study there would be the victim's story corroborated by the rapist's story. Also, there was medical evidence for those rapes, and The Post published the photographs of both the rapists and the victims.
So it got into the paper, but there were many times when it could have been derailed because of my initial puzzlement about whether to believe sources who, it later turned out, had a very limited view of the situation. No one really had an overview of a system, that this was a system that didn't work. Everybody had a limited view and some people just had plain incorrect knowledge, and so it was really my task to try to make the view complete and make all these different parts see why the other parts weren't working.
The series also could have been derailed many times by well-meaning editors whose maybe instincts or values or sensibilities were somewhat different than mine. As I mentioned before, the key to overcoming such problems, I think, is to maintain one's independence mainly by developing more sources and more friends in the newsroom.
'It Happens All the Times'
So this is how I put together this series about this breakdown of a system. I had the idea for this story while watching a sentencing in the Prince George's County Courthouse. An attorney for a young man who was about to be sentenced for breaking and entering told the judge, "Your Honor, my client was gang raped in the county jail." As I watched that young man, he was about 18, I remember really feeling horror in imagining what he had been through.
So afterwards I went up to the judge, whom I had really grown to greatly respect. He was an eminently decent and humane judge. I said, "Judge, how often do you hear of that happening, of men getting raped in the jail?" He said, "Oh, it happens all the time." Then he switched the subject.
So I was startled by that. I wondered if it really did happen all the time, but I was also startled that he seemed to accept it as so normal, almost, that it happened, that it required no further comment.
To me, looking back on this, maybe the first lesson is you have to, of course, check your source's information, you have to find out is it true that this statement is correct, that jail rapes happen all the time, but you also maybe have to preserve your initial gut feeling of, but this is wrong, it shouldn't be routine, rather than accept maybe the source's more cavalier view of, "This is what happens in life."
So I went around the jail and asked other judges the same question, and other judges gave the same answer, that it happened all the time. To me, it was horrifying that a state institution entrusted with the lives of men, both innocent and guilty, did not find a way to stop gang rapes or just permitted this to occur.
I kept thinking maybe the judges are wrong, very few of them could remember the specific names of men who had been raped, and so this made me cautious, so I didn't go telling an editor about what I had found. I felt like I really needed to develop this a while before I broached the subject in the newsroom and started asking for time to do this project when I was supposed to be turning out daily stories.
No Record of Jail Rapes
Police records showed that no charges had been brought for rape in the county jail for the previous four years, and the sexual assault center basically said the same thing, that they didn't have any records of jail rapes, and the jail spokesman said that, no, they didn't have any reported rapes.
So I thought, something's wrong, maybe these judges are all wrong, but I didn't think so. Through a source in the sheriff's department, I started contacting jail guards at night and at their homes. The jail guards' addresses, like police addresses, aren't in the phone book, so I was able to get the addresses through this source in the sheriff's department.
After work, after my usual 60-hour week at The Post, I'd go roaming around Prince George's County, knocking on doors of various jail guards. Actually, they weren't just randomly picked. They were ones who had been involved some years before in a suit against the jail for poor jail conditions.
So we would talk about the jail conditions and then I would ask about the rapes, and the answer I was getting was that of course, they occur, the rapes and sexual assaults were happening at about a rate of about a dozen times a week. The guards remembered the victims' names. So I began looking up the victims' names in the courthouse and most of the victims were at home and I began visiting the victims.
Editor Was Not Interested
The guards were also able to explain to me why the rapes were occurring-problems of understaffing, poor jail design, lack of enforcement of rules, other things. I was able to develop a memo to give to my editors and that memo actually had all the major points that later appeared in the series. This was about maybe after I had done reporting on my own for about a month to six weeks.
So I developed the memo and I brought it one morning to the assistant Maryland editor, who I hadn't had a great track record with. This was an editor who was mostly interested in suburban zoning disputes and seemed to me to lack gut and passion, but I just hoped for the best, and I made my best case. I brought the memo, I gave my pitch, I told him it was really important, and he just wasn't interested. He said, "Let's put it on the backburner." I protested, "Look, what else is so important? This is what we're here for." He said, "No, let's put it on the backburner."
So I couldn't accept that, and I think this is also part of the equation; in the newsroom there are obstacles, too, it's not just sources. There are times when it's necessary to find the next editor, and it's uncomfortable because you have to work with the lower editor, but sometimes there are times when you need to do that.
Appealed to Superior. Woodward Said Yes
So I went to his superior who was a wonderful boss and had helped me and mentored me, who I had a great relationship with, but it was a bad time for him, he needed me to do daily stories, and he had just put this assistant editor in place and I think maybe didn't want to already be seen as undoing his decision, so he said not now.
But I was an inpatient young woman so I went to the metropolitan editor and made my case again. The metropolitan editor at the time was Bob Woodward and he said yes, of course, and he told the assistant Maryland editor to give me some time to do the story; in other words, not full time, but he had to spring me sometimes from the daily coverage when I asked.
Woodward then wrote me a memo, I still have it; he said, "The judges can really blow the lid off jail rapes." So I envisioned kind of a 35-inch story, heavily weighted by officials explaining what the problem was, but this already wasn't really what I had in mind. I wanted a story that of course also quoted the officials but also had the human texture to it, the human dimension of what was going to be the effect of the jail rapes, how were these policies really affecting the human beings, and I really imagined lots of interviews with the victims.
But I didn't argue with Woodward, I just thanked him profusely for letting me get the go-ahead, and I went. So then I started reporting in earnest.
Medical Workers Were Tough
Basically then about this time I started going to the jailed medical workers, also visiting them at their homes. I got their addresses from the jail guards. The jail medical workers had great information, but they didn't want to talk to me. I actually visited their homes many times and got doors slammed in my face, so I had to try different ways of reasoning with these people who would slam doors in my face. I'd just go back another night and say, "Look, if you know these things are happening, this is a matter of conscience." I basically did appeal to their consciences as medical people.
Some of these same people who had initially refused to talk to me finally let me in their homes and the story came out, and eventually I was able to get also medical records of the men who were raped, and this really was tremendous credibility for this story; it really backed up the victims' accounts.
Victims Eventually Talked
At the same time, I continued visiting the rape victims. They were men like Ronald Fridge, an 18-year-old waiter, who was in jail while awaiting charges of malicious destruction of property for allegedly breaking his landlady's window. Fridge was acquitted of the charge, but while he was awaiting trial he was raped by two armed robbers who grabbed him in his cell, beat him on his face and chest, and raped him. This is what Fridge said: "I had blue marks all over my skin." The man who raped him, Gerald Frost, one of the two, said, "The first time my buddy grabbed three magazines, rolled them, and started slapping him. I was laughing because it was funny to me. Then I hit Fridge with a tray and he fell on his knees. My buddy said, 'We're going to bang him.' I said no, but we did it to him." This was kind of typical of the rapists' account.
I should say my interviews with the rapists came later. Initially, I was really concentrating on the guards, the victims, and the medical records. I was tremendously moved by the victims' accounts. I could see their pain and their humiliation and it was very slow going, and I was a young woman and very sympathetic, and there was really no doubt in my mind that they were telling me the truth.
But this is what happened: As I tried to write the story, it wasn't coming together. I felt like something was missing, and my editors meanwhile were really pressing me to get the story in the paper; months were passing. They had a different idea for what the story should say. They wanted me to write about jail rapes nationally, with Prince George's as part of the problem, and to me, Prince George's was the universe through which we saw everything, because at that time jail rapes really weren't seen as a problem, it wasn't an issue. So there was a basic difference.
Needed: the Rapists Stories
So what I did was I ended up consulting another reporter whose investigative work I really admired, Jonathan Newman. He had never been an editor, but I just sat down with him and said, "I need help. I'm trying to do this story and it's just not coming together and I'm not sure what's wrong," and so for a day I really sat there and told him everything I had collected, and he was very quiet through the whole time, he just listened. He had no preconceived ideas about the way it should be shaped or what it should say; he just listened. At the end of the day he said, "You have to talk to the rapists."
I found this astounding at the time. I said, "Talk to the rapists?! They're going to admit their crimes? These were crimes that they weren't charged with, why would they admit their jail rapes to me?" He said, "Oh, they'll say something, they'll say they were beaten. Otherwise, people might think the victims are lying."
So I said I'd try, and I already had actually a lot of the names of the rapists from the victims, and then I just went to the courthouse and looked up where were the rapists, and they were all over Maryland. They had been transferred from the county jail to the prisons of Maryland, because these after all were the convicted armed robbers and murderers.
So I spent the next maybe two months roaming all around Maryland, the State Penitentiary in Hagerstown, the Baltimore Pen, and another prison in Jessup, Maryland, basically talking to the rapists and getting them to talk about the specific rapes of specific people in specific cell blocks on a specific day.
'I'm Not a Policeman'
I used different approaches in talking to these men. A lot of it depended on my sense of the person as they walked in the room. Dwight Welcher is a young man in the prison in Jessup, Maryland, and when he came into the room his eyes were very stern and direct, so I got right to the point. I told him, as he knew, I was doing this story about the Prince George's jail and I was very interested in why he had raped Ralph Bunch Gordon in Section 3A on whatever date it was, and at first he refused to talk to me about it, and he just laughed and looked at me, and then I said, "Look, I'm a reporter, I'm writing a story, I'm not a policeman," and I just reassured him I wasn't only writing about this rape, I was writing about the whole jail and how this was this normal phenomenon in this jail.
I talked and talked and gradually he became comfortable and ended up talking about his rape of Ralph Bunch Gordon, and with great specificity and the kind of detail that let you know that, yes, he really did it. And he was proud of it, too.
The interviews went like this, but in the end this relationship I had with the rapists came back to haunt me because there was an implicit understanding. I told them I'm a reporter, it's okay to talk to me, and they believed me, they talked, they admitted their crimes.
So it was very chilling some months later when, after the series came out, the rapists were indicted for the rapes, and I was subpoenaed to testify against them, and so I really had to think a lot about what was my relationship with them. I knew this much: I was not going to testify against them, there was no way. I felt I could not continue doing work as a reporter, or at least the kind of work I found meaningful as a reporter if I were to testify against my sources.
Bradlee Urged Her to Testify
So for me it was really a matter of conscience. There were people at the newspaper who felt differently about it. Ben Bradlee, surprisingly, was one of them. He felt I really should testify. At that time, he said reporters had good-citizen responsibilities, and, well, we argued about it, but it was clear that his mind was made up.
So we were able to not deal with the problem for a while because the year before I had won a Fulbright to Japan and conveniently enough it was time to go off to the Fulbright, and so I took off for Japan for a year, and then after that my husband and I got our backpacks and we left Japan and we traveled around the world with our backpacks for another six months, and every week I'd have to call the Williams and Connolly lawyer and say, "What's going on with the appeal?" It was all bad news. Maryland had a shield law, but reporters were protected from speaking against their sources only if the source was unnamed. But I had named them all, so I had to testify.
So all these calls that would take three hours to make from India and Pakistan and Nepal and Egypt, and all bad news. By the time we got to France, we ran out of money, came home, and I was given another 10 subpoenas, and the game was up; I had to go to court.
So I went to court. Bradlee was still saying, "You have to testify, you have a good-citizen's responsibility." Howard Simons was saying, "I understand, it's a matter of conscience." But Bradlee was very forceful and he had other editors in the newsroom calling me and telling me I really should go along with it, but in the end I didn't testify. I stuck to my guns and the paper really was forced to back me up. It would have been, I think, terribly embarrassing for them not to.
So I ended up explaining in court why I wouldn't testify and then I was cited with contempt of court, and the jail rapists, they were all indicted and charged, and I'm sure they feel quite badly about me today, but I still feel I have some sense of honor because I didn't testify against them.
Then some years later, I was rather disillusioned. I was a very young woman when all this happened, and Gene Roberts at The Philadelphia Inquirer made me an offer, and I left. Now I have a more supportive atmosphere.
I think it's all about maintaining independence, both outside the newsroom and also inside.
Q. & A.
Williams - An observation and a question. I think one of the things demonstrated here is an approach to a story. The initial reaction of the editor to Loretta when she goes in is immediately, "We can get the story through official channels quick. We can go to the judges and we can write an official story." Loretta chose not to do that. She chose to go to the story. It took months. I presume you never thought about calling these people on the phone. You went to see them by knocking on the door and looking them in the face and getting in conversation. I guess my question for the other two panelists is, did it ever occur to you to approach what you each approached basically as an official story, dealing with official sources, to approach your story in that way, by finding the people affected at the end result and having a conversation. So rather than relying on official sources who had agendas which you might get caught up in, you were dealing with the end result of the process with people that you could quote by name on the record.
Rashbaum - We did go to the people with the story about the gun dismissals. Our problem was that all these were people who had in fact been arrested with a weapon. We did talk to a bunch of them and in fact there was a sidebar – one of those stories that never ran in the paper – about a young man who had no arrest record, he was the one we could find. Pretty much everybody else had an arrest record. A lot of the people we talked to were like, "Was that the arrest in April?" And it would be, "No, no, it was the one in the winter."
But we did find this one guy who had been pulled over by this police officer whose testimony had led to several cases being dismissed. He had a permit for a gun, a target permit, but he couldn't carry it on his person. He maintained it was locked in the glove compartment. The cop said it was in a fanny pack on the seat. The judge believed him and not the cop, and the cop has since then been stalking this man, waiting for him outside his home, and waiting for him outside his place of work because he made complaints against the police officer.
'Controlled Terrorist Group?'
Williams - That's the story I was thinking about. There are allegations and the record seems to support him, that the whole concept behind the street police unit was to be in effect a controlled terrorist group, that they went into the community, and it made no difference whether their arrests stood up or not, as long as they let the people on the street know they were going to get hauled in. That was the story I was thinking about that could have played off the other end.
Rashbaum - We wanted that to appear in the newspaper very much, but it didn't. That said, the reasons that it was controlled terror, which is probably a little strong, what we tried to get to is it was a management issue, to some degree a management issue. These cops each were told they had to get two guns a month off the street, and you've got three cops riding around in a car, maybe that's six guns. Crime is going way down. There is less crime, there are less people carrying guns. So the policy has created a situation where, while there's less crime and less guns, there is more and more aggressive, increasingly aggressive enforcement, and that's the sort of climate, some people would argue, that led to the shooting.
Grant - In Beachwood, there actually was a fairly lively contingent of citizens in the community that were, I would say, watchdogs themselves, and I spent time talking with them and they alerted me to things that they thought were happening, so that worked out that way.
I also at one point, when the service director was getting free work at his home from the landscape contractor, I talked to the neighbors then about how the trucks had pulled up and the trees had been planted and the gravel had been laid. I was working sometimes in the neighborhoods and with citizens, but a lot of it was with official sources.
Getting the Rapists to Talk
Q. - I was wondering if Loretta could talk more about how you got the rapists to go on the record, because it seemed to me it would be their first and foremost concern that they would be prosecuted for it, and did they actually believe that they would not be prosecuted for it?
Rashbaum - And the victims.
Q. - Were they all named?
Tofani - They were all named.
Rashbaum - And their pictures were in the paper.
Tofani - Yes, there were three parts. The first part had victims. The second part had the rapists. At any rate, it was not so difficult, really, to get the victims to talk to me. The hard part was using the names. I'd go to their homes and I went about this a little gingerly. I said I was doing a story about the conditions in the Prince George's jail, I didn't say rapes in my first sentence. I was younger then, I looked a little timid and shy myself, they all felt sorry for me and let me in the door. So then we'd talk about the horrible conditions in the jail, the bad food, the horrible toilets, the overcrowding, and then I'd bring about the question about the rapes, and then they sometimes would tell me about their own rape or the rapes of other people. Then, because the paper had a policy against using victims' names, I always asked them if I could use their names, and again I appealed to their consciences, and with that appeal in time I was allowed to use their names. With the rapists, I used a somewhat different approach. I felt I didn't have to read them their Miranda rights or warm them there was a chance of being prosecuted. I went in there and talked about the jail conditions and asked them about how they had done the rape and if they said they didn't rape someone, then I'd find the other gang rapist in the same rape and get somebody there to describe it and go back to that person with the new information and the story would come out. I just used their names, I didn't feel I was talking to somebody in the State Department where it was understood that everything was confidential. I was a reporter, they knew it, I had written to them on Post stationery, and I used their names. It was simple.
Clearly on the Record
Q. - And they understood clearly at the time that everything they said, would not necessarily would be used against them, but was clearly on the record?
Tofani - I was writing in my notebook. I didn't actually say it to them, but they had to be stupid not to get it.
Q. - Did any of them say anything like, "Hey, am I going to get in trouble for this?"
Tofani - Well, yes, essentially some did, but then you see what I would do is go around – then I would say, "Okay, bye." These were gang rapes, so I had four more men to pick from. So okay, tomorrow I'll go to the Baltimore Penitentiary and talk to the other guy in the same rape and then he would tell me about what rapist A did, and then I'd go back to rapist A and say, "I just saw your buddy and he said you used a toilet bowl brush." He'd say, "Oh, yeah, the toilet bowl brush, I forgot about that, yes, I did use that." This way, we'd get everybody to admit.
What If Victims Were Women?
Q. - It's a great story, and I have a question about conscience. You didn't testify, or you wouldn't testify, and I'm just wondering would you have testified if the victims were women?
Tofani - No, I would not have. I had an implicit understanding with these sources, the rapists, that I was not acting as an arm of the government, and I feel it would hurt the view of myself as a reporter to start testifying for the government against people I interview. I'm not sure how I could keep going on being a reporter doing that. It's a role that I don't envision myself having as a reporter. I feel like my job is, you get the story, you put it in the newspaper, and then the chips fall where they may, but then you don't keep sticking it to them. It didn't matter to me whether they were men or women. I wouldn't have testified.
Q. - And if the victims had been children?
Tofani - No, I would not have testified. This story was given to the government basically on a silver platter. It had the names, it had everything, it had medical records, it had victims' names, it had rapists' names. My role was over when it was printed.
All Rapists Convicted
Q. - Did they ever convict anybody? Did they go, for instance, to get co-conspirators? Did they do what you had so clearly laid out for them, go to two other rapists, or go to the least active participants?
Tofani - They convicted all the rapists. Maybe this was their idea of how to clear up the problem of jail rapes. Of course, this did nothing to clear up the problem of jail rapes, but maybe it made some county prosecutor feel like he was doing his job.
Kovach - I can't think of a better note to end on than Loretta's statement that she was not an arm of the government, and a reporter should not be. Thanks very much.