A costly mea culpa

Jul 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

Jack Kelley, former star foreign correspondent for USA Today, not only severely damaged the reputation of the nation’s largest daily by fabricating and plagiarizing stories for a dozen years, the disgraced reporter is also costing USA Today’s owner, Gannett, some cash.

Gannett Satellite Information Network Inc., a subsidiary of Gannett Co. Inc. (which also owns our beloved Detroit News), agreed to pay Global Relief Foundation $17,000 because of a bogus story Kelley wrote about the Islamic charity, according to foundation attorney Roger Simmons.

Among Kelley’s many fictitious clips was a January 2002 story in which he reported that the CIA and U.S. Special Forces searching caves and safe houses in Afghanistan found documents linking Global Relief Foundation (GRF) and another Chicago-based Islamic charity to al Qaeda.

GRF was co-founded by Rabih Haddad, an imam arrested in his Ann Arbor home shortly after 9/11 for a visa violation. Haddad was detained for 19 months before his deportation to Lebanon last year (“Haddad breaks his silence,” MT, March 17).

GRF was raided and shut down on Dec. 14, 2001, the day of Haddad’s arrest.

Kelley’s story alleging GRF links to al Qaeda hit the streets about six weeks later.

When Simmons challenged the reporter’s claims, USA Today told the attorney it would neither correct nor retract the story.

Simmons complained again in March 2004, after the paper reported “strong evidence of plagiarism and fabrication in many stories written by Kelley.”

At that point the paper was willing to do what it should have done the first time around: USA Today asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago to review the court file to determine if what Kelley reported was true.

According to USA Today, in a story it produced earlier this year after conducting an investigation into Kelley’s many transgressions, Randall Samborn, spokesman for the prosecutor, said, “There is no public court record, either of documents that were found in caves or safe houses of Afghanistan, or that discuss the existence of such documents, as he [Kelley] suggested in the Jan. 30, 2002, story.”

In June, Gannett attorney H. Bryan Brewer III, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Treasury informing it that the media company intended to make “a single payment totaling less than $20,000 into the GRF Legal Defense Fund.” Although no evidence has been released linking GRF to any terrorist activity, the Treasury Department controls GRF’s accounts. (The government maintains that secret evidence showing GRF to be a terrorist organization does exist; the foundation’s attorneys, who maintain the organization is a legitimate charity, are attempting to have that “so-called” evidence disclosed.)

For a news organization, Gannett is being extremely tight-lipped about the settlement. According to Simmons, the company threatened to scuttle the deal if news of it leaked before the deal was finalized.

Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell refused to make any comment regarding the entire affair. She also declined to disclose whether other victims of Kelley’s fiction are receiving cash compensation.

As of Monday, when this story went to press, Simmons said he expected a wire transfer of the money to be completed within the next few days.

If not, you can look forward to another News Hit on this topic next week.

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