Editors at USA Today now say they forced former star reporter Jack Kelley to resign after he deceived them during an internal inquiry into whether he had fabricated some of his high-profile reports from abroad.
Last September, Mark Memmott, the senior reporter assigned to review Kelley's work, grew suspicious of Kelley's account of an interview that served as the basis of a front-page story in July 1999, according to the newspaper. The high-impact story provided seemingly clear-cut evidence that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had ordered ethnic cleansing - the strongest connection yet uncovered.
In the wake of anonymous allegations lodged against Kelley last spring by a fellow reporter, the newspaper hired a private investigator to determine whether the woman presented by Kelley as the translator for a key interview had actually participated in it.
In a telephone interview with Memmott, the woman backed Kelley's version of the article. But the investigator was able to prove that she was not the actual translator, according to the newspaper's accouanty in today's editions. The newspaper had intended to run a story explaining the inquiry yesterday, but it was held late Sunday evening, according to one USA Today journalist knowledgeable about the process.
Kelley, who resigned last week, did not return several calls seeking comment. In an interview with The Washington Post published on Sunday, Kelley said he had "panicked" by allowing a different translator - on her own initiative - to pose as the one involved in the contested story. He told the Post that he voluntarily revealed his mistake.
But USA Today's editors confronted him well before his confession, the former colleagues told The Sun. And these former colleagues say the newspaper concluded that he had put the translator up to the trick.
Kelley nonetheless stood by his stories and told the Post that the inquiry was a "witch hunt."
USA Today issued a statement to accompany its article today, in which it said Kelley's public comments had prompted its disclosure. "By engaging in a deception, he violated the first responsibility of any journalist: to the truth," the statement said. However, the newspaper said its investigation was unable to resolve whether the articles by Kelley under review were incorrect or misleading. The paper said the inquiry has been ended.
Several of Kelley's former colleagues said his work had been questioned internally several times even before the anonymous complaint. In one case, as The Sun reported last week, an editor and reporter for USA Today refused to use quotations from unnamed sources provided by Kelley for a front-page February 2002 story about the fruitless search by U.S.-led troops for Osama bin Laden. The two journalists could not verify that two of the sources cited by Kelley actually existed, according to colleagues.
Based in suburban Virginia, USA Today has the highest circulation of any daily newspaper in the country. It relied on Kelley to report from many of the world's most dangerous regions, and he is the paper's sole correspondent to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his work at the paper.
Kelley is a 1982 University of Maryland graduate who joined the paper right out of school, before its first edition was published. His wife, Jacki Kelley, is USA Today's senior vice president for advertising.
At staff meetings held last Thursday, reporters challenged Editor Karen Jurgensen and other senior editors about the lack of any public accounting being given for his reporting, which has been under fire.
And some questioned why the internal inquiry had taken such a severe turn if his reporting did not need to be corrected.
Yesterday evening, spokesman Steven Anderson said the Gannett Co. newspaper was still not in a position to correct any stories "at this moment in time," but would not specifically say whether USA Today would vouch for the reporting that was published under Kelley's byline.