By: Alicia Mundy
There’s nothing one newspaper fears more than being scooped by another.
It happened to The Washington Post last week, when The New York Times trumped it with a solid story on the United Way of the National Capital Area (UWNCA). But there’s a larger issue: what happens when your hometown paper drops the ball.
It was 10 years ago next week that the first United Way of America scandal erupted over embezzlement of funds. When the dust settled, UWA President William Aramony and two executives were heading to federal prison. The Washington Post and Regardie’s magazine (for whom I broke that story) applauded themselves for their good deed.
But last October, I had deja vu all over again, when a board member called with revelations about UWNCA, the second-largest United Way chapter in the country, which raised $93.56 million last year. The allegations sounded familiar: misuse of funds, cronyism, excessive expense accounts, secret consulting contracts, an absentee board of directors, and office redecoration costs more in keeping with Donald Trump’s yacht than a charity. Some of the old Aramony hires were in the picture. The source proffered sizzling documents, interesting invoices, and board members ready to talk on the record. It almost killed me to say, “I don’t cover this anymore. Call the Post.”
I assumed Posties would pounce like seagulls on a french fry. But the french fry got away. It took three months and The New York Times to get any story into the Post. A staffer, a fund-raising division chairman, and a board member all told me they sent packages of memos in October to the Post reporter who covers District of Columbia charities. One memo, from a lawyer on the United Way board, read like the Sherron Watkins shot across the bow in the Enron Corp. case. Several board members demanded a thorough investigation of the United Way’s new CEO, while waiting for the Post to jump on their documents and force a clean-up. Nothing happened.
On Nov. 8, according to several sources, the CEO blew up in a meeting of top staffers, saying that someone had called the Post about his organization. But no story appeared.
Frustrated by new developments, UWNCA veterans called me back this month. This time, I suggested they speak with David Cay Johnston of the Times, who knows nonprofit rules. Within three days of Johnston’s seeing the first memo, they learned he was ready to go into print. But the clever CEO didn’t return several calls from Johnston on Jan. 21, and the Times held the story one day.
At this point, the United Way’s public-relations machine, including the same man who defended Aramony to the bitter end a decade ago, was on red alert. The day that Johnston called the UWNCA flack and his CEO, Jan. 21, someone tipped off the Post‘s local charities reporter about the Times‘ involvement (the UWNCA flack told me). So both stories hit together Jan. 23. The Times‘ story read like a series of bomb blasts, revealing that the CEO had been forced out of a previous United Way position, and that his UWNCA supporters had kept it from the rest of the UWNCA board. The Post‘s piece, less detailed, was more reflective of the UWNCA management’s position.
The Post‘s metro editor, Jo-Ann Armao, said that no one remembers seeing any of the United Way packets. Reporter Jacqueline Salmon said she hadn’t heard about the misfeasance allegations until the night of Jan. 21. The United Way people can’t figure out how all their missives missed. The anthrax scare may account for one package mailed in Washington, but not another mailed from a Virginia ‘burb.
Perhaps Salmon, who was working on September 11 Fund issues last fall, just assumed that an envelope containing United Way material was more of the same. Maybe it’s the mailroom from hell. Whatever — the Post ceded an expose in its own back yard to the Times.
Embarrassed by the Times, the Post, one would think, would produce a second-day story matching the Times‘ incendiary info, as well an in-depth look at the bigger issues. But it had no follow-up the next day — though every local TV station and Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor had weighed in. Surprisingly, The Washington Times had nothing either day, confirming Post editors’ beliefs that they are the only paper in town.
UWNCA staffers and board members concerned about the damage to the people served by this charity risked their jobs, hoping their hometown paper would do its job. As one staffer wailed, “How do you think our contributors feel knowing that $50,000 went to redecorate an office, when $50,000 covers a year’s worth of help for pregnant teens at the Northern Virginia Urban League?” Or that a $775 plane ticket for the CEO’s same-day trip to Miami to speak at a United Way luncheon would cover 15 doctor visits for an uninsured mother?
Call me crazy, but I think there’s a story there.