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The Message

In many journalism circles, "leak" is a dirty word.

It wasn't always so. In 1971, the New York Times was hailed by much of the press -- and a sizable portion of the public -- for its decision to publish what became known as the Pentagon Papers, and Daniel Ellsberg, the admitted leaker of the documents, emerged as a counterculture hero. In the years since, however, the term has developed a negative connotation -- the implication being that leaked data, no matter how important, is inevitably tainted by the agenda of the person doing the leaking.

"There's something sinister about it, and readers pick up on that," says Johnny Whitaker, director of communications at the Air Force Academy. "They think there's something untoward, some sort of subterfuge going on."

Whitaker's viewpoint explains his visceral reaction to charges springing from "Relationship Complicates AFA Case," a March 24 offering in the Colorado Springs Gazette that revolved around Kira Mountjoy-Pepka, a former cadet, who was among a startling number of academy attendees to allege that the institution turned a blind eye to violence and abuse directed at women on campus ("The War Within," January 30, 2003). Penned by reporter Pam Zubeck, the Gazette piece stated that "according to investigative files," Mountjoy-Pepka "engaged in sexually explicit online chats" with DonCosta Seawell, whom she accused of raping her. As an example, Zubeck wrote about "an undated e-mail exchange" in which Seawell asked Mountjoy-Pepka "if she had ever fantasized about being raped. She responded: 'I think almost every girl does.'" Coming from Seawell, this query is especially ominous. Although he says he never sexually assaulted Mountjoy-Pepka, he served a fourteen-month jail sentence after pleading guilty in October 2002 to forcibly sodomizing a woman who uses a wheelchair. At the time of Zubeck's salvo, Seawell was in a San Diego military prison for a parole violation after allegedly soliciting sex from an underage girl over the Internet.

Mountjoy-Pepka's Atlanta-based attorney, Jim Cox, was incensed by the Gazette narrative. In a March 25 effort by Rocky Mountain News reporter Dick Foster, Cox "denied the reports and contended that Air Force officials leaked the documents to discredit women who have said they were raped at the academy." Speaking with Westword, Cox reiterated this belief and complained about the difficulty of refuting such claims once they've hit newsprint. "Your hands are largely tied," he says. "All you can do is go back to the press and challenge it to the extent that it's one-sided or not correct and point out that it has been leaked -- that it was apparently done at a particular time for a particular purpose."

"I categorically deny that anything was leaked out of here, and nothing was leaked out of the Pentagon -- and we're the only two places that are speaking about the Academy sexual-assault scandal," AFA spokesman Whitaker replies. "We'd have nothing to gain from doing that, because if it came out that we'd leaked something, it would become one of those big-institution-against-the-individual kind of stories."

Indeed, Whitaker says that to his knowledge, the academy hasn't leaked information about rape allegations or anything associated with them. Cox maintains likewise with regard to his client's case, noting that "there have been stories written, interviews given, but it's all been straight up, aboveboard." Zubeck, meanwhile, insists that the file she dipped into for her report "wasn't leaked to us in the traditional sense. It was only by a series of events that came together over a period of time that we were able to put this story togetherŠthrough the normal, diligent, long-term news-gathering process."

So who got the info to the Gazette, and how? Zubeck won't divulge her source, Cox still feels someone at the Air Force was responsible, and Whitaker speculates that Seawell could have provided the file, or Zubeck might have found it amid a mountain of public documents that only she's taken the time to climb -- which would mean that what appeared to be a leak wasn't a leak at all. Not technically, anyhow.

Questions about whether leaks fueled coverage of the recruiting controversy at the University of Colorado trigger similar exercises in hair-splitting. In two instances, journalists say that what appear to be leaks really aren't.

The latest batch of trouble at CU dates to a December 2001 recruiting party at which student Lisa Simpson says she was raped. The allegation was investigated, but in the end, Boulder District Attorney Mary Keenan decided against levying rape charges. She chose instead to formally accuse four party-goers with providing alcohol to minors.

In late 2002, Simpson took matters into her own hands by filing a civil complaint that sought to make CU liable for what happened to her. This action received plenty of local coverage, as did several other developments during 2003 and the early weeks of 2004, including Simpson's move to make her name public ("Naming Rights," February 26) and the decision by two other women to sue in relation to the party. Even so, the national media exhibited only moderate interest prior to late January, when Governor Bill Owens said CU would face a state investigation if it didn't deal with allegations of dubious doings in the athletic department.

 

Owens was prompted by a January 28 broadcast on Channel 9, during which journalist Adam Schrager revealed the contents of depositions made by several people in Simpson's suit -- most prominently, Keenan, who argued that CU used sex and liquor to inveigle football recruits. A March 28 article in the Denver Post stated that the depositions were leaked, and the Post should know. After all, Schrager, who was out of town and unavailable for comment while this column was being prepared, gave the depositions to the paper as part of a news-sharing agreement between Channel 9 and the Post for a piece that ran on January 29. But Tim Ryan, Channel 9's assistant news director, who's worked closely with Schrager on his CU reporting, says "nobody proactively contacted Adam and leaked him material."

The explanation of how Schrager obtained depositions before anyone else in the media without them being leaked to him gets awfully complicated. On January 27, the day before Schrager's package aired, U.S. Magistrate Craig Shaffer ruled that Keenan's deposition and several others CU lawyers wanted to keep sealed should be made public. Shaffer gave attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defendants until February 16 to agree whether names or other items should be blacked out. Nonetheless, Lisa Simon of Prescient Communications, who's serving as a press liaison for Simpson (a chore she previously handled for the family of Dylan Klebold after the 1999 slayings at Columbine High School), says the young woman's legal helpers understood that "those depositions were no longer under seal."

In February 27's "PR Blitz Rocks CU," a wide-ranging dissection of media-related shenanigans, Longmont Times-Call staffer Bruce Plasket wrote that after Shaffer's January 27 hearing concluded, Simon "approached reporters and introduced herself as Simpson's spokeswoman. Simon then provided media outlets with copies of Keenan's deposition." While Simon acknowledges that she spoke with numerous journalists at the federal courthouse, mainly "to put names with faces," she says she didn't hand out any depositions at the time. Rather, she goes on, "we subsequently distributed them over the next couple days" to members of the media who requested copies. She keeps the identities of the reporters she supplied to herself.

Channel 9's Ryan is just as reticent when it comes to fingering the provider of the deposition. Still, he's sure Schrager's scoop came as the result of hard work, not dumb luck. "I can't say with certainty what Adam may or may not have seen during his news-gathering," Ryan allows, "but he had been searching for material for many months out of journalistic curiosity, and that's what led to the story." To those who find the proximity between the Keenan revelations and sweeps month suspicious, Ryan points out that the report ran "a week before the ratings period. The timing was entirely related to when we got the story."

As for Simon, she objects to any suggestion that the Simpson team has been playing fast and loose with documents under their control. "We have not been leaking," she says. "I absolutely stand by that."

The Times-Call's Plasket, who emphasizes that he's speaking for himself and not his paper, scoffs at this assertion. After the January 27 hearing, Simon "was standing on the street corner going, 'Hi, sailor,'" Plasket says. "It's campaigning, it's politicking, it's advertising, it's trying the case in the newspapers. She can call it any damn thing she wants, but I was there, and I saw it."

Plasket doesn't send valentines to Schrager, either. He dubs the reporter "Sally Schrager," after the Sally Field character in the 1981 film Absence of Malice; Field played a reporter who wrote a story based on an inaccurate leak. Then again, Plasket says, "We were all Sally Field for a while. It's just that some of us pulled our heads out and figured out that we were getting used. Most of us did not." In Plasket's view, the Denver and Boulder media in general swallowed what was fed to them by Simpson's representatives "hook, line and sinker. They managed to create this politically correct atmosphere where, if you questioned any of the allegations, you were in favor of the subjugation, the assault and the demeaning of women. Most of my overpaid colleagues at the union papers have absolutely fallen in line with that."

 

When Plasket figured out that he'd been buffaloed, he says, "it upset me so badly that I lost myself in my house for ten days. Finally, I realized that I'd stepped in the same crap everyone else had stepped in. I was completely humiliated and embarrassed and felt some need to go out and atone for that -- to do my damn job." Plasket's act of penance, the "PR Blitz" piece, beats up on Keenan, who, he writes, "played a significant role in the events leading up to the lawsuit filed by Simpson and was aware of what was contained in the depositions of other key witnesses before they were released." The article also hammers CU Regent Cindy Carlisle; Plasket hints that she may have given her husband, Simpson attorney Baine Kerr, inside dope about a program headed by strength coach Doc Kreis that allowed convicted football players to work off community-service hours by lifting weights. Plus, he alluded to a diary in which Simpson "vowed to 'ruin the lives' of five CU football players and expressed a desire to see players punished even if they did not assault her."

In a typically hysterical and superficially reported April 3 screed, Rocky media columnist Michael Tracey wrote that "someone leaked extracts" from the Simpson diary to the Times-Call -- a move that puzzled Tracey, because, he says, "If you are going to leak, why on earth go to a small paper rather than to one of the major metro papers?" These comments bother Plasket in a couple of ways. First, he thinks the Times-Call is a larger paper than the Rocky or the Post because it publishes seven days a week, whereas the Denver dailies only come out six, thanks to the joint operating agreement that links them. Second, he says he didn't get hold of the diary via a leak. "I'm not going to tell anyone when or where I got it, because the where might tell you the when," he teases. "But for almost two months, it was not under a protective order."

Once the diary was sealed, the folks at the Rocky and the Post knew of only one way to get it: from Plasket. He was ready, willing and able to help. "They started asking me if they could have access to the material I got my butt in a sling over, and I thought, 'Sure. I'm done with it. It's just gathering dust.'" Plasket doesn't think his display of largesse qualifies as a leak, because he obtained the diary when it was a public document. Consider it more of a friendly gesture.

Rocky reporter Lynn Bartels used the pages Plasket supplied to write March 24's "An 'Angry' Diary," which made a bigger noise than the Times-Call article had by virtue of the News's larger circulation, not to mention the prominent play the paper gave it. "The fact that the Rocky chose to splash it on their front page is, at the least, disconcerting," says Simon, Simpson's spokeswoman. "I can only imagine they were fully aware of the impact it would have on Lisa."

To that, Bartels says, "So it's okay to tease a story on the front page in which athletes may be portrayed in a negative light, but it's not okay to portray stories in which the alleged victims may be portrayed in a negative light? I don't buy it." Moreover, Bartels isn't convinced that the diary article undermined Simpson at all. "The reaction in the newsroom was divided," she notes, "with some people thinking she looked vindictive and other people asking, 'How can you read this and not think that she was raped? She's so hurt and angry.'"

Simpson was upset by the Rocky article, too, and her legal reps asked Judge Shaffer to sanction CU for leaking the diary. At a March 26 hearing, he declined to do so without proof that CU had done anything wrong. CU spokesperson Pauline Hale thinks that was appropriate. "I have not put myself in the position of leaking information. I don't really see the point in leaking things," she says. As for Evan Dreyer, the former city editor for the Post who now serves as spokesman for the independent commission looking into recruiting at CU, he says he's unaware of anything that's been leaked to the commission by the university or Simpson's supporters. He worries, though, that "if documents the court has deemed to be protected continue to find their way into the public eye, the judge might broaden the protective order or impose gag orders -- and that could affect the ability of the commission to secure testimony from witnesses or see documents it needs."

This isn't an idle concern. Judge Shaffer ordered lawyers on both sides to come up with plans to prevent leaks in the future, or else face the prospect of being formally muzzled for the remainder of the case. Simon says Simpson's lawyers wrote Shaffer that they'd support a gag order if it would exclude the commission's work but encompass everything else.

 

Not that a gag order's necessary, since the principals in the CU situation, like those with a connection to Zubeck's article about the Air Force Academy, say they've had nothing to do with leaks. More urgent would be a giant grain of salt.


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