Kelley rankled USA Today as early as 1997

Red Cross executive quoted incorrectly

January 16, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

More questions are surfacing about the veracity of articles written by former USA Today star reporter Jack Kelley.

Kelley was forced to resign this month after he was found to have deceived editors during a long and ultimately inconclusive inquiry into whether he had fabricated material for several articles. On Wednesday, the newspaper additionally published its editors' concerns that he may have lifted unattributed passages from the Washington Post in a 1998 article about small-arms dealers on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Now, several former colleagues from USA Today say that Kelley was credibly accused of planting words in the mouth of the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross in a sensitive article published on May 2, 1997. The remarks, contested at the time, had been made by a Red Cross spokesman in an earlier, off-the-record conversation with Kelley, they said.

The 4,700-word article, which explored the organization's failure to bear public witness to the genocide of the Holocaust, was written in collaboration with two other reporters, Peter Eisler and Katy Kelly.

In 1997, Kelley defended himself by saying he had been told by the spokesman that he could attribute the comments to the international Red Cross president. Yesterday, by contrast, a lawyer for Kelley conceded the incorrect attribution but called it "a minor mistake." Kelley talked to the Red Cross spokesman, lawyer Lisa J. Banks said, and the two men agreed no correction was needed.

At the time, however, the incident rankled both the Red Cross and USA Today reporters and editors, according to his former colleagues, who spoke to The Sun on condition they not be named.

David Mazzarella, then USA Today's top editor, said he has no recollection of the incident. But he said Kelley's explanation in 1997, even if true, would fail to meet basic journalistic standards. In the article, the scene suggested an actual exchange between then Red Cross President Cornelio Sommaruga and Kelley that yielded the quotation, not a spokesman passing along a statement in the name of his boss. "That's still not the way to do this," Mazzarella said this week.

A spokesman for USA Today said it was not aware of the controversy about the article. "We'll look into it," Steven Anderson, the newspaper's spokesman, said yesterday. Editor Karen Jurgensen and Executive Editor Brian Gallagher served on USA Today's editorial page at the time.

Thanks to Kelley, USA Today in spring 1997 had obtained an advance look at a trove of Red Cross documents from the World War II era before its public release. And the task of interviewing Sommaruga fell to him. Sommaruga was visiting Washington on April 10 to speak at a breakfast with reporters on an unrelated topic at the National Press Club, and Kelley headed over to record his reaction.

According to the ensuing article, Sommaruga reacted angrily during an interview to questions about the Red Cross' silence in the face of the Holocaust:

"`Ridiculous,' Sommaruga shouts, when asked if the group was partly to blame for murder. `I reject that in the strongest way. It is not our job to act like the cavalry.'"

But it was Kim Gordon-Bates, a press aide to Sommaruga, who had made those remarks several hours earlier, during an informal conversation over coffee. In a telephone interview this week from Geneva, Sommaruga told The Sun he never said the disputed remarks attributed to him.

"Those are certainly not my words," said Sommaruga, the international Red Cross' president from 1987 to 1999. "I am not strong enough in English to have used such words." The Rome-born Sommaruga, a Swiss citizen, said English is his fifth language.

Gordon-Bates, now a press officer for the Red Cross in the Solomon Islands, said he recalls meeting Kelley over coffee for an off-the record conversation at a cafe near the press club. In an interview this week by telephone, Gordon-Bates said he was surprised by Kelley's attempt after Sommaruga's appearance to conduct what he considered an "ambush" in the presence of other reporters. Sommaruga quickly cut short the exchange, Gordon-Bates said.

"I remember indeed the situation," said Gordon-Bates, who is British. "The style [of the quotations] is certainly mine, and certainly not that of the president." Gordon-Bates said he remembers protesting several aspects of the article, but cannot recall, nearly seven years later, whether they included the quotes.

Several former colleagues of Kelley, however, said Gordon-Bates called Peter Eisler, one of the other reporters on the project, to object to the quotation. (Eisler declined to comment for this article.) Eisler referred it to editors, the former colleagues said. But Kelley defended his decision. He told editors the quotation came from Gordon-Bates, but that the Red Cross press aide told him he could attribute the remarks to Sommaruga, according to the colleagues. Eisler and others were chagrined.

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