Nov 17, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Chuck Philips under attack again

The anonymous blogger Patterico makes a significant addition to his ongoing jihad against former LA Times reporter Chuck Philips here.

The exhaustive (and somewhat exhausting) entry is an analysis of Philips’ relationship with a rapper named Waymond Anderson, who was portrayed in a series of Philips articles as innocent of the murder he’s serving a life prison term for.

Patterico dug up a lengthy deposition Anderson gave, which he says Philips had partially reported on in the past. The part he didn’t report on, according to Patterico, contains Anderson basically saying a lot of patently crazy stuff about his case and the murders of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, two other pet subjects of Philips’.

Philips had used Anderson as a source in at least two important articles; Patterico’s point is that a) anyone reading the full testimony could see he was a loon and b) by not sharing the crazy stuff with readers Philips was covering up his blockbuster source’s iffy bona fides.

Ironically enough, Anderson has recently been embarrassing Philips in an entirely different way.

Lots, lots more in Patterico’s full entry.

Hitsville previous writings on the Chuck Philips case are here.

Aug 01, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Chuck Philips back in the news

LAT reporter Chuck Philips added a colorful footnote to his already colorful career today when a story in the Times reported that a convicted murderer at a hearing charged under oath that Philips had passed on threatening notes from Suge Knight to the inmate during jailhouse visits.

The charge doesn’t look that serious; the story details the convict’s long history of claims and retractions. Ironically enough, Philips wrote a 2500-word-long article questioning the validity of Anderson’s murder conviction last year:

[…P]rosecutors persuaded a jury that the entertainer known as “Suave” was a ruthless drug dealer who had torched a home near the USC campus, killing a man to avenge an unpaid drug debt. Anderson was sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder.

Now, after nearly 13 years behind bars, he has asked the state Court of Appeal to throw out his conviction, contending that new evidence shows he could not have committed the crime.

Two witnesses who identified him at the trial as the arsonist have given sworn statements saying that they lied under pressure from police.

Philips-hating blogger Patterico, an anonymous LA prosecutor, goes nuts with the story here.

Philips is quoted denying the allegation:

“That never happened,” said Philips, who has written several stories about Anderson’s murder conviction suggesting that Anderson may be innocent. “I’m flabbergasted by this whole thing. This is the ultimate betrayal.”

Knight, the founder of Death Row Records, could not be reached for comment.

And Philips told the paper he had talked to Anderson recently:

In recent weeks, Philips said, he has kept in regular contact with Anderson’s family, though he has not been covering the hearing for the newspaper. Over the weekend, Philips said, Anderson’s wife set up a conference call with Anderson from jail.

Anderson, he said, asked for his help. Philips said he told him he could do nothing more.

“He just said, ‘I’m hung out here all by myself.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what I can do. There’s nothing I can do,’ ” Philips said.

Philips was one of the Times staffers who accepted a recent buyout offer; he left the paper last week. With another reporter he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for exposing corruption at NARAS, the organization that puts on the Grammys.

Earlier this year, however, he suffered a massive humiliation days after he published a blockbuster investigative piece alleging that rap impressario Sean Puffy Combs had known in advance of an ambush on rapper Tupac Shakur in New York in 1994. The piece was refuted by the Smoking Gun web site and later formally retracted by the paper.

———-

Previously in Hitsville:

Big Trouble in LA: The Times retracts the Tupac story

At the LA Times, the pain may be just beginning

Did the LAT get hoaxed on its Tupac bombshell?

What will become of Chuck Philips?

Dark Deeds!: The Chuck Philips/Anthony Pellicano connection

Also:

The LAT’s apology and its original story.

The Smoking Gun’s expose of the hoax.

May 16, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Dark deeds! The Chuck Philips-Anthony Pellicano connection

The pseudononymous Patterico, at Patterico.com, ties one of his favorite topics, the nefariousness of Chuck Philips, to the recent conviction of Anothony Pellicano on racketeering and wiretapping charges.* [Link via kausfiles.]

Philips is the LAT Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter whose blockbuster story about the non-fatal 1994 shooting of Tupac Shukur ran aground on the information given him by an imprisoned con man. The paper first acknowledged that the story was based on falsified information and then formally retracted it and apologized.

lat-logo.jpg

Patterico has been suspicious of Philips for years. (Hitsville, I should note again, is a fan of Philips’, though I know him not at all. As I have written previously, however, I think there’s a good case to be made that he and the LAT have not heard the end of the Tupac debacle.)

Anyway, Patterico has a statement from Anita Busch, the reporter who found a threatening note on her car and started the process in motion. She wants an investigation of Chuck Philips’ Pellicano reporting, charging that he had a too-close relationship with the private eye. She has a sophisticated point to make:

To Pellicano and his wealthy clients, ‘winning’ meant completely obliterating someone’s life and livelihood. They saw the media as just another weapon in their arsenal and used and abused it to go after anyone in their crosshairs. For example, they used their PR connection to plant items in the New York Post’s Page Six to slam victims like Bo Zenga and Garry Shandling. And when their targets became FBI agent Stan Ornellas and U.S. attorney Dan Saunders, they tried to smear and discredit these decent men in the pages of the L.A. Times. The Pellicano case coverage in the L.A. Times as reported by Chuck Philips (who told the NY Times that Pellicano was his longtime news source) should be examined. It’s a case study of how Pellicano worked his media relationships to try to destroy his adversaries.

Patterico says that, specifically, the LAT was the only paper that cast aspersions on those investigating Pellicano. The rest of evidence is pretty thin; Philips is said to have gone to Pellicano’s wedding, and to have been at the reading of his verdict earlier this week, in both cases not taking notes. Philips could be the secret godfather of Pellicano’s pet parrot or barely know the man; this sort of stuff is evidence of neither.

(Patterico also has a long discussion of a couple of married LAT editors and what one of them may or may not have said about hiring Pellicano to investigate the Busch threat, and a response from one of them, which you are welcome to peruse at your leisure.)

On the other hand, a good investigative reporter, particularly one of the ones going after the very dirty stories Philips specialized in, sometimes has to hang out with some very dirty people. You want them going to the hoods’ weddings.

That may be why the Times is standing by Philips. On the surface, he was hoodwinked by a professional con man and it seems as if, for now at least, the paper is acknowledging that great reporters can make mistakes.

The only problem with this is that there are still some very key questions the paper hasn’t yet explained to readers. (I’m not one who thinks that the press owes readers every little bit of behind-the-scenes detail. But while the paper has been quite open about the problems of the story, and retracting it, there remain some very difficult questions that haven’t been answered. An overview here.)

Of course, looming over this is the potential of a lawsuit from Puffy, rap agent James Rosemond, or associate Jacques Agnant, all of whom were slurred in the original Philips story. The paper may be suiting up for a big legal attack, and that probably explains why it is not volunteering any more information to readers.

Sean Combs is definitely a public figure, but he may have his own reasons not to take the case to trial. (He may be working on a settlement with the paper behind the scenes, however.**) Rosemond and, particularly, Agnant have a better argument to make about not being public figures, with the standards for a libel judgment correspondingly lower.

Rosemond has a special case to make in that, besides being branded as the guy who set up Tupac for the assault in which he was shot, he was also mistakenly said to have done prison time for drug dealing, which the paper retracted as well. Again, I’m not a lawyer, but the failure to do simple fact-checking of such a volatile accusation will not look good in court.

* One part of the Pellicano story I’ve always adored, but which is often overlooked in the slew of incredible charges that have transpired since, is that fact that, once the cops got onto him six years ago, they searched his office and found … a significant quantity of C-4 explosive and two live hand grenades. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, but has remained in jail after being indicted on the wiretapping charges.

** The legal problems the paper is facing could mean we may never know how exactly the story went awry. Couldn’t the paper settle with all three characters, and agree to keep the details secret? That might be good for the paper in the business and legal senses, bad in the journalistic one. Sam Zell, of course, inherited this mess. What will his call be?

———-

Previously:

Big Trouble in LA: The Times retracts the Tupac story

At the LA Times, the pain may be just beginning

Did the LAT get hoaxed on its Tupac bombshell?

What will become of Chuck Philips?

Also:

The LAT’s apology and its original story.

The Smoking Gun’s expose of the hoax.

Apr 14, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

What will become of Chuck Philips?

The star LA Times reporter, hoodwinked by a jailed con man, is still in limbo a week after the paper retracted a major investigative piece that purportedly named the people behind the nonfatal 1994 shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur in NYC. E&P talked to LAT editor Russ Stanton, who said

Philips “remains active and on the payroll,” but added “what he is going to be doing in the future is still in the process of being defined.”

The story continues:

Having to face such a controversy after just a month at the helm, Stanton said the incident had made for a challenging beginning, but did not blame anyone but the paper itself. “I think we did what we were supposed to do; we made a pretty big mistake, we owed up to it on day one,” he said.

———-

Previously:

Big Trouble in LA: The Times retracts the Tupac story

At the LA Times, the pain may be just beginning

Did the LAT get hoaxed on its Tupac bombshell?

Also:

The LAT’s apology and its original story.

The Smoking Gun’s expose of the hoax.

Apr 07, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Big trouble in LA: The LAT retracts the Tupac story

The Los Angeles Times and reporter Chuck Philips—who posted a web-only investigative piece March 17 that purported to reveal who was behind the nonfatal shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur in New York in November 1994—have now formally retracted the story and its allegations.

A crushing analysis in the Smoking Gun made a strong case that the paper had relied on false documents and unreliable testimony from a con man; before, the paper had only acknowledged that some of the material the story was based on was faked.

The retraction as published this a.m is devastating; it says the paper relied on a bad source—a man named James Sabatino, whom the paper portrayed as a player in the rap world and a key architect of the assault on Shakur. In reality, Sabatino, who was a teenager at the time of the assault, was apparently in reality a rap-scene wannabe and a con man of no little industriousness, if not success, who has spent most of his adult life behind bars.

To make matters worse, the paper noted prominently that Sabatino and his purported partner in crime, James Rosemond, were close associates of rapper and impressario Sean “Puffy” Combs.

The Times now believes that Sabatino fabricated the FBI reports and concocted his role in the assault as well as his supposed relationships with Combs, Rosemond and [Shakur friend Jacques] Agnant.

Consequently, The Times specifically retracts all statements in the article, and in its related publications, that state or suggest in any way that Rosemond, Agnant and Sabatino orchestrated or played any role in the assault on Shakur or that they lured him into an ambush at the Quad studios.

To the extent these publications could be interpreted as creating the impression that Combs was involved in arranging the attack, The Times wishes to correct that misimpression, which was neither stated in the article nor intended.

The last sentence is going to figure in what seems will be an upcoming libel trial, as Puffy moves to defend his good name. The way the Times writes it, it doesn’t look that bad, until you read the next graf of the retraction:

The Times also reported that Sabatino told Combs in advance that Shakur was going to be attacked. The Times now believes that Sabatino had no involvement in the attack and that he never spoke to Combs about it. Any statements or implications suggesting that Combs was given advance knowledge of the assault on Shakur, or played any role in it, are specifically retracted.

Parsed carefully, those two grafs don’t technically contradict each other, but I wouldn’t want to be the one who will have to keep that distinction straight in the mind of a jury. More on that in a minute.

If you can believe it, the retraction gets worse:

In addition, The Times was mistaken in reporting that Rosemond has served prison time for drug dealing and was convicted in 1996 of drug offenses. The Times specifically retracts those statements.

Pile those problems up, and its hard to see how this failing, in an era when journalistic imbroglios, year after year, capture the public imagination, is not the worst journalistic screwup we have yet seen. The CBS disaster involving President Bush’s skating of his National Guard obligations was based on forged documents, but the underlying story wasn’t fully discredited; the fabrication scandals at the NYT and the New Republic were caused by sociopaths against whom it is hard for any paper to defend, given the trust journalism is based on.

But in the LAT Shakur story, the documents were faked; the main source was a loon; the paper seems not to have done anything like due diligence in investigating the character and record of the guy doing the allegations; it didn’t do due diligence to ascertain the documents it had were reliable; it used all of that evidence to smear the names of several other prominent people; and on top of that also seems to have smeared one of those folks further by reporting that he done time for drug offenses.

And Combs now has the cause and the time and the money to make the paper rue the day it ever got on this story.

There will be more to say about this in coming days, but there is one more key point here; as I wrote a while back, the over-arching question is who the multiple sources were the paper used to buttress the allegations from Sabatino and the FBI documents he apparently forged. Those documents were supposedly from an FBI informant; Philips reported that:

The FBI documents do not name the informant. The Times learned his identity and verified that he was at the Quad on the night of the assault. When contacted, the man said the FBI records accurately convey what happened, and what he told investigators.

Emphasis added. The mind boggles at how that graf will be discussed in a courtroom. The LAT retraction had this to say on the subject of the informant:

The Times has since concluded that the FBI reports were fabricated and that some of the other sources relied on—including the person Philips previously believed to be the “confidential source” cited in the FBI reports—do not support major elements of the story.

Conspicuously absent from the retraction is who that informant was. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago:

This issue is the one in which the Times and Philips seem the most vulnerable. It’s hard to conceive of an answer to the question “Who was the informant?” that doesn’t increase the paper’s embarrassment.

A few potential scenarios:

The possible answers all raise new questions. Stay with me: A) The “informant” could be in on the conspiracy with Sabatino to fool Philips. This seems elaborate, and requires Philips to have been duped multiple ways, but is in keeping with Sabatino’s breathtakingly rococo flim-flamming. B) It’s possible that Sabatino himself was the informant and told Philips so, explaining that the FBI wrote about him in the third person in the forged documents to conceal his identity. C) Philips found the forged documents, identified Sabatino as the informant, and used him as confirmation. But, since Philips apparently found the documents in a court filing Sabatino himself made, this explanation would require a huge naiveté on Philips’ part and a great deal of creative dissembling on Sabatino’s. D) Finally, I suppose it’s remotely possible that the informant did exist and did talk to the FBI, and that Sabatino knew about this, but that he forged the documents because he couldn’t produce them himself—in other words, that they were forgeries of documents that in some variant did existed somewhere. The original Smoking Gun exposé of the Times’ mistake, however, contains assertions that make this unlikely.

A), B) or C) remain possibilities, and all are beyond unattractive. The worst case scenario is that Philips essentially used Sabatino as the confirmation of Sabatino’s false allegations.

I’ve said before that Philips was a journalistic hero of mine, and it should not be forgotten that he is a rare breed and a guy who has spent his career working on the hard stories. And I’m not a lawyer. But it’s hard not to see how the Times is not vulnerable to a libel suit of potentially epic proportions.

Combs and Rosemond are public figures, but Agnant doesn’t seem to be. Even for the high standards of establishing libel against a public figure, it certainly looks like the Combs & Co. have strong case of recklessness to make. The lawyers will put up a big photo of Sabatino in 1994 in the courtroom (he was 17 at the time, white, and pudgy) and detail his pathetic and crazy history of wild stories, a history Philips apparently didn’t know about and in any case did not share with readers. Then they move to the purported FBI documents, which the paper didn’t authenticate; from there will come a discussion of Philips’ confirming sources, some and possibly all of whom don’t exist. The fact that he also falsely tagged Rosemond as a convicted drug dealer is not going to help matters either.

Truth is of course a defense; that doesn’t seem an option here. All the paper can really do is plead that it was the victim of a hoax. What will come next isn’t going to be pretty. There’s no recent journalistic scandal I can think of that brings a publication close to this level of vulnerability.

Previously:

At the LA Times, the pain may be just beginning

Did the LAT get hoaxed on its Tupac bombshell?

Also:

The LAT’s apology and its original story.

The Smoking Gun’s expose of the hoax.