UPDATED: ‘Denver Post’ And ‘Charlotte Observer’ in Pulitzer Dispute

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By: Joe Strupp

A dispute over a Pulitzer Prize finalist in investigative reporting has emerged between The Denver Post and the Charlotte (N.C) Observer. The conflict sparked a phone call Wednesday from Observer Editor Rick Thames to Post Editor Greg Moore, who is also a Pulitzer Board member. Moore says he is now “writing a letter about it.”

At issue is the Post?s July 2007 series on lost and destroyed evidence, which E&P has learned is among the three finalists in the investigative reporting category. The series included examinations of a number of cases in which evidence questions had been raised.

Among the cases examined is the story of Floyd Brown, a mentally disabled North Carolina man who was freed in late 2007 after 14 years in prison without being tried. He was charged with murder, but questions about different pieces of missing evidence, including a murder weapon and bloody clothes, eventually led to his freedom.

Former Charlotte Observer reporter Emily S. Achenbaum, who left the paper in January to take a job with the Chicago Tribune, wrote numerous stories about the Brown case dating back to late 2006, including an extensive package in March 2007, which predated the Post series. She now wants the Pulitzer board to take a close look at both her coverage and the Post’s.

Achenbaum contends that the Post coverage, by reporters Susan Greene and Miles Moffeit, was written without credit to the Observer and with the inference that the Post first dug up the story. ?They ran follow-up stories on Oct. 9 and Oct. 14 [about Brown?s release] and both contain paragraphs that suggested after the Post did the story, that attorneys were immediately called to action to file for his release,? Achenbaum said. ?They called this a case that they identified, which is a little misleading.?

The Post’s Oct. 9 story stated at one point that ?The Denver Post featured Brown’s story and the disappearance of key evidence from his case in ?Trashing the Truth,? a series about the loss and destruction of physical evidence from criminal investigations. Shortly after the story’s publication in July, Brown’s legal team filed for his immediate release.?

Moore acknowledged that the Observer coverage was prominent, but contends that the Post did its own reporting and had no reason to formally credit the Observer. ?It seems to me that they did what a really good paper should do, but if anything, their story led us to a treasure trove of court documents that we went and got.?

Moore added that Brown?s attorneys filed the paperwork seeking his release in August, only after the Post series ran. He also said, ?we did our own reporting and if someone asked us if this had been written about, we said ?yes?.?

Thames, in an e-mail response to Moore’s comment, told E&P, “Brown’s attorneys did file their writ of habeas corpus a month after the Post’s story ran. But they had been working on it for 10 months. And one of them has told us that the Post’s story had absolutely no influence on them.”

Achenbaum also claims that Greene sought information from her on two occasions in October 2007 for coverage related to Brown?s hearing and eventual release, but said she would not give the Charlotte paper credit. Those included a request for confirmation that it cost $2.3 million for Brown to be housed at a state hospital and a request for Achenbaum to cover the hearing in which Brown was granted freedom and provide Greene with information from the hearing.

?I said okay as long as she would credit the Observer,? Achenbaum recalls. ?She said she would not. I was stunned.? Achenbaum never provided the information sought in either instance.

Greene told E&P that she had come across Achenbaum?s coverage in her reporting and only sought her guidance in finding state officials to confirm the cost amounts. ?I asked her who at social services would have those numbers,? Greene said, but added that any talk of credit to the Observer ?comes out of thin air.?

?I certainly read her stories and knew about her stories while I did my own research,? Greene adds.

Moore said he was surprised that Achenbaum would complain about Greene, noting that no one from the Observer raised any complaints until this week, soon after E&P revealed the Post story as a Pulitzer finalist. ?We were kind of surprised that this cropped up just in the days since E&P reported it,? he said. ?When Rick [Thames] called me, that was the first time we had heard about that.?

He said his review of the situation also turned up numerous e-mails between Greene and Achenbaum dating back to last fall, which he described as ?cordial.?

?Emily and Susan have had electronic e-mail contact and not a word of this,? Moore said. Achenbaum acknowledged the e-mail connection, adding: “it was cordial until she asked for my help without credit.”

Achenbaum, who worked in Charlotte for four years, says she is concerned that the Post might be getting Pulitzer consideration without all the facts being known. ?I would hope that journalism?s biggest prize would only go to reporters who acted ethically and honestly,? she said. ?I accept this is out of my hands; I trust the Pulitzer Board, after hearing all sides, will make a good decision.?

Thames said he phoned Moore on Wednesday to discuss the issue with him and the Post editor said he would review it and get back to him, but he had not heard back by Friday morning. He said Moore was professional and willing to do whatever was necessary to clear up the problem.

?I let him know what I would want to know, that we had published an investigative story on Floyd Brown?s circumstances prior to the Denver Post?s coverage of that case,? Thames told E&P. ?It is up to Greg to decide what to do. I wanted Greg to have a look at it. We have not had a chance to discuss it since I called him.?

In an e-mail to E&P on Friday, Thames offered more concern about the situation, stating: “There was the strong implication in the stories that the Post ‘discovered’ this case and influenced its outcome. I think Emily was rightfully concerned that the Pulitzer board should know more about prior coverage of the Floyd Brown case than it could by reading the Post’s stories. That stirred her to ask the Observer to look at this again.”

Moore said he had spoken to Thames and was ?actually writing a letter about it.? He said he welcomed Thames? concerns, but believed the Post had acted properly. ?We did all of our own reporting of those cases and that is important to me,? Moore said. ?Rick was kind in bringing this to our attention. I appreciate the way he approached us about this. I don?t think there is anything wrong here.?

The Charlotte Observer March 2007 stories can be found at:

http://www.charlotte.com/598/story/218451.html

The Denver Post July 2007 coverage can be found at:

http://www.denverpost.com/evidence/ci_6455487

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