ABC News President David Westin is resigning and plans to leave the company before the end of the year, reportedly because of friction between him and executives at parent Walt Disney Company over the network's poor profits. But poor profits won't be the only problem that confronts Westin's successor. Whoever it is will also have to deal with some of the loose cannons rattling around ABC News' decks.
One of them is a Westin favorite, investigative reporter Brian Ross, who has established a fabulist record that extends over nine years, most of Westin's tenure. In his latest report, Ross has cobbled together information from irrelevant or financially interested sources to condemn an Army contractor for committing fraud against the government. And not just any fraud: one that could endanger the lives of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
That report -- Ross's latest, entitled "Lost in Translation" -- is an example of the problem Ross poses for the network. The report is centered on an accusation that a company called Mission Essential Personnel ("MEP") committed fraud in providing U.S. forces in Afghanistan with translators who can't speak the languages troops need to communicate with Afghans.
This report is editorially contrived, built misleadingly around the allegations of a former MEP employee who has a financial interest in accusing MEP of fraud.
Ross's story begins with a video made by a British journalist's film crew following U.S. Army troops in 2008. It shows a U.S. patrol sergeant trying to communicate with a local elder. The elder says there's no security in the village but the translator tells the sergeant that there are no problems, and the translator's ineptitude leads from miscommunication to hostility between the troops and the elder who wants their help.
The report then switches to an interview with decorated Afghanistan veteran SSgt. Genevieve Chase. Chase says that there were many times she was working with an interpreter and -- because of her own training -- knew "instantly that he wasn't communicating what I had just said."
The next scene begins at the front of the MEP offices in Columbus, Ohio, and then shifts to an MEP ad recruiting translators and to congressional testimony given by MEP's CEO saying MEP had filled 97% of the Army's needs. Ross says that the more translators MEP provides, the more money it makes, implying a motive for fraud.
Then Ross gets to the protagonist of the story, a "whistleblower" named Paul Funk. Funk is the plaintiff in a "qui tam" lawsuit against MEP, alleging that it committed fraud by providing the Army with interpreters that MEP knew were unqualified.
("Qui tam" lawsuits are created by the Civil False Claims Act, which dates back to the Civil War. It enables private citizens to sue in the government's name and keep part of whatever damages may be recovered.)
In a written ABCnews.com story the day before the report aired, Ross and two co-authors lead with the statement that according to Funk more than one quarter of the MEP translators failed language proficiency exams but were sent to the battlefield anyway. Funk repeats that charge in the broadcast report.
Ross's broadcast finishes with the end of the British-filmed segment from 2008 in which the translator apparently makes up an answer that the village elder hadn't given, incorrectly telling the U.S. sergeant that the elder said he hadn't seen the Taliban for one year, though the elder had said he wanted to cooperate with U.S. forces.
But the translator in the British film wasn't an MEP employee. SSgt. Chase wasn't in Afghanistan after 2006 and MEP didn't arrive until 2007. And Ross didn't report that qui tam plaintiff Paul Funk has a major financial interest in the lawsuit.
MY CALL AND E-MAIL TO ABC seeking an interview with Ross resulted in a conversation with one of the report's two producers, Matthew Mosk (who is also one of Ross's co-authors in the ABCnews.com story).
Mosk insisted that the report wasn't about MEP but about a bigger issue: the question of mistranslation in Afghanistan. He told me MEP was just one element of the broader story. But the story begins and ends with allegations against MEP, and about one-third of the eight-minute report focuses specifically on it.
Ross's report -- after beginning with the British film -- mentions briefly, about two and a half minutes into the report, that the translator in the film isn't an MEP employee. But after Funk's allegations are aired, it goes back to the British film, effectively tying it again to MEP. (Ross does mention that MEP uses the British film in its instructional materials as a bad example.)
SSgt. Chase told a University of Nebraska seminar that she deployed to Afghanistan in 2005 and was injured in an IED attack in April 2006. She testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2009 that she served in Afghanistan in 2006. But according to Funk's complaint filed in U.S. District Court, the MEP contract was awarded in late 2007.
Mosk contends that ABC brought Chase in as an expert. When I repeatedly asked if Chase had ever observed any MEP translators in action, he demurred: "She wasn't in Afghanistan when Mission Essential Personnel held the contract." (Chase declined to be interviewed for this article.)
In government contracts, one or more "warranted" (i.e., licensed) contracting officers ("COs") are responsible for awarding and administering each contract. Because the contracting officer is legally responsible to hold the contractor accountable for its performance of the contract, the CO receives both regular and ad-hoc reports on how well the contractor is performing from people in the field. If there were major problems -- probably even minor ones -- the Army CO responsible for MEP's contract would know.
Ross does report -- based on documents that MEP provided -- that the Army contracting officers gave MEP outstanding ratings. But ABC didn't obtain -- and apparently is in ignorance of -- the extensive documentation that the system requires to support those ratings. Mosk said that ABC had asked for more information but its requests resulted only in the Army statement that it was now investigating MEP.
Nowhere in the report was MEP given an opportunity to refute Funk's charges. Mosk said that ABC had "begged and beseeched" MEP to come on camera, but MEP on the advice of their lawyers refused to do so.
After the interview, Mosk provided two e-mails to MEP which he believes supports that claim, but seem to refute it. They offer, on short notice, interviews on the Friday before and the Tuesday after the Labor Day. The story aired the following Thursday without an interview of MEP.
BUT WHAT WAS THE RUSH? Why wasn't the Ross report delayed in order to include an MEP interview?
Those facts, and Ross's nine-year track record of fabulism, make the MEP report highly questionable.
In October 2001, Ross made a series of reports that linked Saddam Hussein to the anthrax attack on congressional offices, saying a chemical called bentonite was found in the anthrax and comprised a "signature" of the Iraq chemical warfare program. After White House denials, ABC aired a series of elaborations, some of which "clarified" Ross's story but didn't correct the report.
In April 2006, Ross aired a report that then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert was implicated in a bribery scandal. Both the Justice Department and Hastert denied the bogus report.
Last December, Ross reported that two terrorist prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had planned the Christmas Day attempted airline bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. But one of the two had surrendered to Saudi authorities the previous February.
Last February, Ross aired a report purporting to prove the accusation against Toyota that its cars were defective and dangerous, suddenly accelerating and endangering drivers. Ross was filmed in a Toyota that accelerated wildly and then emerging, shaken, from the car after the incident. Part of the report included a film of Ross driving a Toyota which included a view of the car's tachometer purporting to show that the vehicle accelerated wildly. But in a March 18 letter to Toyota signed by ABC Senior Vice President John Zucker, the network admitted that the tachometer was filmed when the car was parked. It was, the Zucker letter admitted, an "editorial error." But it was more than that: it was an editorial contrivance to prove the point that Toyotas were dangerous to drive.
Ross used a decorated combat veteran -- who wasn't there when MEP's translators were on the job -- to bolster his case against MEP. Were the inclusion of the British film and SSgt. Chase more "editorial errors"?
I asked Mosk about those problems. He said, "If you take the premise that this is a story that's intended to be an indictment of MEP and the other elements are all built around that indictment of MEP, then you've misconstrued what the story is." But it's hard to construe it any other way.
Whoever succeeds David Westin at ABC will have to undo a lot of damage to the network's credibility. Right now, with Westin on the way out and no successor named, Brian Ross is still "investigating."
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