Project Censored: The Byrne ultimatum

Project Censored: The Byrne ultimatum

The story behind a censored story that was killed by The Nation

By Amanda Witherell

Sometimes the story behind a story is just as juicy as the story itself. One of Project Censored’s picks for the 2008 list – “Senator Feinstein’s Iraq Conflict” started out as a project funded by the Nation Institute, and was supposed to splash the cover of the Nation magazine prior to the November 2006 election. Instead, it took some interesting peregrinations – involving some charges of partisan political influence — before it was finally printed in the North Bay Bohemian on January 24, 2007.

Petaluma-based freelance journalist Peter Byrne was originally paid $4,500 by the Nation Institute to research connections between lucrative defense contracts granted to Perini and URS companies, in which Richard C. Blum held stock, and the Senate Appropriations Military Construction subcommittee (MILCON) that funds the contracts– and which includes Blum’s wife, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, as a ranking member.

Blum’s companies were involved with more than $1.5 billion in defense contracts between 2001 and 2005. Michael R. Klein, Blum’s business partner and Feinstein’s legal advisor, had been informing the senator about specific federal projects in which Perini had an interest, specifically to avoid conflict of interest issues, but Byrne reported Feinstein was not told about potential URS contracts. So, in the case of Perini, Feinstein would be informed and recuse herself from pertinent decisions, but with URS, she’d remain in the dark, and because the detailed project proposals don’t include the names of the companies bidding, the senator wouldn’t know it was URS.

“In theory, Feinstein would not know the identity of any of the companies that stood to contractually benefit from her approval of specific items in the military budget – until Klein told her,” Byrne wrote.

According to Klein, a Senate Select Committee on Ethics ruled, in a confidential decision, that this was all above board.

But Byrne contends, “That these confidential rulings are contradictory is obvious and calls for explanation.”

Furthermore, Byrne’s research concluded that the senator could potentially look at the lists from Klein, compare them to the nameless funding requests and contracts coming before MILCON, and draw substantial conclusions on her own about where the money would end up.

“Klein declined to produce copies of the Perini project lists that he transmitted to Feinstein. And neither he nor Feinstein would furnish copies of the ethics committee rulings, nor examples of the senator recusing herself from acting on legislation that affected Perini or URS. But the Congressional Record shows that as chairperson and ranking member of MILCON, Feinstein was often involved in supervising the legislative details of military construction projects that directly affected Blum’s defense-contracting firms,” Byrne wrote.

A month after Byrne turned the story in to Bob Moser, who was the Nation‘s editor on the story, the piece was killed. In an email to Byrne, Moser wrote, “The main reason is that with Blum’s sale of

Perini and URS stock last year, this became an issue of what Feinstein did rather than an ongoing conflict. Because of that, and also because Feinstein is not facing a strong challenge for re-election, the feeling here, finally, was that the story would not likely have the kind of impact we want from investigative stories.”

Later in the email, Moser writes the story lacks a “smoking gun,” apparently because Byrne lays the case for a perceived conflict of interest and relies on the testimony of non-partisan ethics and government experts for support.

Still, Byrne told us, “I was shocked. The story was really solid, completely fact-checkable, and even though it was complex I think I boiled it down pretty well.”

The Nation‘s publicity director, Ben Wyskida, told us it’s rare for the magazine not to publish a story in which the Institute has invested significant time and money, but in this case the editors decided to pass. “Ultimately they just didn’t feel like he delivered the story that we’d hoped.”

“At the same time, we do think it’s an important story,” he added.

Undaunted, Byrne took it to, which initially agreed to buy it, but then killed it as well. When asked why, news editor Mark Schone told us, “We don’t discuss those kinds of editorial decisions. We have a long history of publishing investigative pieces.”

Byrne thinks it was political. “In my opinion it’s because both the Nation and Salon have an editorial allegiance to the Democratic Party.” It was, he said, too sensitive a time to publish a story critical of a Democrat when the party was positioning to take control of the legislative branch.

The Nation vehemently denied the decision to kill had anything to do with that. “It’s absolutely false that we had any political biases that caused us not to run the piece. It was the reporting and the timeliness,” said Wyskida.

Salon would not comment on Byrne’s political theory.

When pushed for specifics on what the story lacked, Wyskida said, “Generally, we felt like it was possible there were pieces of the story we could not verify or stand behind.”

Byrne went on to pitch the story to Slate, the New Republic, Harper’s, the Los Angeles Times, and – thinking that conservative publications might bite – American Spectator and Weekly Standard. “Most of the editors praised the reporting, but turned down the story,” Byrne writes in an update for Project Censored’s publication. “So I sold the tale to the North Bay Bohemian, which, along with its sister papers in San Jose and Santa Cruz, ran it on the cover – complete with follow-ups. After it appeared, the editors and I received a series of invective-filled emails from war-contractor Klein (who is also an attorney) but, since he could show no errors of fact in the story, he did not get the retraction he apparently wanted.”

Klein, a key figure in the series of stories, is chairman and founding donor of the Washington, DC-based Sunlight Foundation, an organization that promotes more government transparency and grants investigative work undertaken with those goals. The Blum Family Foundation has also given seed money to Sunlight.

The foundation’s Web Site has posted a rebuttal to Byrne’s story, written by senior fellow and veteran investigative journalist, Bill Allison. It includes a spirited exchange between Byrne and Allison on some of the finer points of Byrne’s reporting, and links to the original Congressional hearings that Byrne cites for some of his evidence of Feinstein’s questionable ethics.

Shortly before Byrne’s story was printed in the North Bay Bohemian, Feinstein quit MILCON. Byrne reported this resignation in a March 21, 2007 story, in which he speculates thinks it was because of his questioning her ethics.

Feinstein’s office denies any connection. Press officer Scott Gerber said that at the start of a new Congressional session, “She took the opportunity to become chair of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. It’s a better subcommittee for California.” Her office also attempts to blow holes in Byrne’s story with a detailed rebuttal similar to Allison’s – not issued as a press release but provided upon request (and available here in pdf form.)

Despite the rebuttals, which contend that facts have been distorted, Byrne says no evidence exists that merit any retractions.

“Stories get killed all the time for various reasons but what I found interesting is that they paid me almost $5,000,” said Byrne, who expressed admiration for both the Nation and Salon. “The editor worked really hard with me but it was leading up to the elections. I’m not actually accusing them of anything nefarious. They basically told me they weren’t going to print it for political reasons.”

Peter Phillips, director of Project Censored, which rated the Byrne story as #23 out of the top 25 stories the mainstream media missed last year, said it played a part in prompting him to conduct a survey of 10 popular “left”-leaning publications. The survey looked at whether or not liberal news outlets touched stories that weren’t reported by the mainstream media and the results were included as a chapter in Project Censored 2008.

EDITORS NOTE: The above story reports that the piece on Dianne Feinstein’s conflicts of interest was slated to

run on the cover of The Nation. Ben Wyskida of the Nation contacted us after publication say that “we just don’t make promises like that; our covers never get decided until all the edits are in.”

Originally published September 15, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian