More questions are surfacing about the veracity of articles written byformer USA Today star reporter Jack Kelley.
Kelley was forced to resign this month after he was found to have deceivededitors during a long and ultimately inconclusive inquiry into whether he hadfabricated material for several articles. On Wednesday, the newspaperadditionally published its editors' concerns that he may have liftedunattributed passages from the Washington Post in a 1998 article aboutsmall-arms dealers on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Now, several former colleagues from USA Today say that Kelley was crediblyaccused of planting words in the mouth of the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross in a sensitive article published on May 2, 1997.The remarks, contested at the time, had been made by a Red Cross spokesman inan earlier, off-the-record conversation with Kelley, they said.
The 4,700-word article, which explored the organization's failure to bearpublic witness to the genocide of the Holocaust, was written in collaborationwith two other reporters, Peter Eisler and Katy Kelly.
In 1997, Kelley defended himself by saying he had been told by thespokesman that he could attribute the comments to the international Red Crosspresident. Yesterday, by contrast, a lawyer for Kelley conceded the incorrectattribution but called it "a minor mistake." Kelley talked to the Red Crossspokesman, lawyer Lisa J. Banks said, and the two men agreed no correction wasneeded.
At the time, however, the incident rankled both the Red Cross and USA Todayreporters and editors, according to his former colleagues, who spoke to TheSun on condition they not be named.
David Mazzarella, then USA Today's top editor, said he has no recollectionof the incident. But he said Kelley's explanation in 1997, even if true, wouldfail to meet basic journalistic standards. In the article, the scene suggestedan actual exchange between then Red Cross President Cornelio Sommaruga andKelley that yielded the quotation, not a spokesman passing along a statementin the name of his boss. "That's still not the way to do this," Mazzarellasaid this week.
A spokesman for USA Today said it was not aware of the controversy aboutthe article. "We'll look into it," Steven Anderson, the newspaper's spokesman,said yesterday. Editor Karen Jurgensen and Executive Editor Brian Gallagherserved on USA Today's editorial page at the time.
Thanks to Kelley, USA Today in spring 1997 had obtained an advance look ata trove of Red Cross documents from the World War II era before its publicrelease. And the task of interviewing Sommaruga fell to him. Sommaruga wasvisiting Washington on April 10 to speak at a breakfast with reporters on anunrelated topic at the National Press Club, and Kelley headed over to recordhis reaction.
According to the ensuing article, Sommaruga reacted angrily during aninterview to questions about the Red Cross' silence in the face of theHolocaust:
"`Ridiculous,' Sommaruga shouts, when asked if the group was partly toblame for murder. `I reject that in the strongest way. It is not our job toact like the cavalry.'"
But it was Kim Gordon-Bates, a press aide to Sommaruga, who had made thoseremarks several hours earlier, during an informal conversation over coffee. Ina telephone interview this week from Geneva, Sommaruga told The Sun he neversaid the disputed remarks attributed to him.
"Those are certainly not my words," said Sommaruga, the international RedCross' president from 1987 to 1999. "I am not strong enough in English to haveused such words." The Rome-born Sommaruga, a Swiss citizen, said English ishis fifth language.
Gordon-Bates, now a press officer for the Red Cross in the Solomon Islands,said he recalls meeting Kelley over coffee for an off-the record conversationat a cafe near the press club. In an interview this week by telephone,Gordon-Bates said he was surprised by Kelley's attempt after Sommaruga'sappearance to conduct what he considered an "ambush" in the presence of otherreporters. Sommaruga quickly cut short the exchange, Gordon-Bates said.
"I remember indeed the situation," said Gordon-Bates, who is British. "Thestyle [of the quotations] is certainly mine, and certainly not that of thepresident." Gordon-Bates said he remembers protesting several aspects of thearticle, but cannot recall, nearly seven years later, whether they includedthe quotes.
Several former colleagues of Kelley, however, said Gordon-Bates calledPeter Eisler, one of the other reporters on the project, to object to thequotation. (Eisler declined to comment for this article.) Eisler referred itto editors, the former colleagues said. But Kelley defended his decision. Hetold editors the quotation came from Gordon-Bates, but that the Red Crosspress aide told him he could attribute the remarks to Sommaruga, according tothe colleagues. Eisler and others were chagrined.
Upon an inquiry by The Sun, Kelley's lawyer Lisa Banks said the reportermade a minor error. "One of those quotes was mistakenly attributed to Mr.Sommaruga," Banks said yesterday. Instead, she said, the comments came "fromthe spokesman, Mr. Gordon-Bates." Gordon-Bates signaled to Kelley that "thiswas a non-issue and that no correction was required," Banks said.
The article, written at a time when many European institutions were beingcriticized for their earlier complicity with the Nazi regime, drew upon anadvance look at 60,000 pages of internal Red Cross documents. The organizationagreed to release them to USA Today before the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museummade them available to the public. On May 15, 1997 - two weeks after thearticle appeared - the paper published a letter from Gordon-Bates complainingthat USA Today had made it seem as though the Red Cross had not voluntarilychosen to share information about a painful topic.
But no correction was ever published about the quotation. Gordon-Bateswrote to The Sun in an e-mail yesterday that the publication of the letter"was the end of the matter as far as we were concerned." Ultimately, the RedCross praised USA Today for its expansive coverage.
Mazzarella and his deputy, former Executive Editor Robert A. Dubill,separately said they did not recall the controversy. "Damned if I can rememberanything about it," said Mazzarella. "I'm not denying that's the case. I justdon't remember that."
Kelley, a 1982 graduate of the University of Maryland, is USA Today's solePulitzer Prize finalist for reporting. He was the Gannett Co. newspaper'sstaffer of the year in 2001 and his wife, Jacki Kelley, is USA Today's seniorvice president for advertising. Based in suburban Virginia, USA Today is thenation's largest daily newspaper.
Kelley was forced to resign from USA Today this month after beingconfronted by editors who had discovered he had repeatedly deceived them inpresenting a translator who, he claimed, could vouch for an article underscrutiny. As he later admitted to editors, the woman had not played a role inthe interview. But Kelley's lawyers have rejected the concerns of USA Todayabout the similarities of a different 1998 article by Kelley about armsdealers on the Pakistani border with a Post article.