How the 'Contra Costa Times' Uncovered a Letters-to-the-Editor Scam

By: Graham Webster Every now and then, letters to the editor at the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times don't get posted to the paper's Web site with the rest of the day's paper, after midnight. When Dan Hatfield, the paper's editorial-page editor, arrived at the office at his usual 5:30 or 6 a.m. on those mornings, he'd find out right away that some letters hadn't made it up, because there would an angry e-mail waiting in his inbox from Kyle Vallone.

Hatfield could never understand why Vallone cared so much.

Times reporter Sarah Krupp solved that riddle in a story published Sunday. After a months-long investigation, Krupp exposed Vallone as the man behind an unusually sophisticated letter-writing campaign.

"We have always found a few little things," Hatfield told E&P about previous instances of dishonest letter-writers. "We had found a number of other people who were not nearly as sophisticated as this one."

Vallone went further than anyone, making up letter writers, securing false phone numbers, and even faking accents on the phone to match his made up names, the Times reported.

After months of reporting, and one earlier confrontation, Krupp got Vallone to admit that he had worked on as many as 200 false letters sent to at least three Northern California newspapers: the Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Tri-Valley Herald.

Krupp started looking into the letters when she was covering a local election and some suspicious letters surfaced in the campaign.

"She started going through mountains of letters looking for the same phone numbers, and she found a few," Hatfield said. Once she tracked down the numbers in question, she managed to contact Vallone, who at first denied any knowledge of the letters.

After Krupp found out more about Vallone and solidified the reporting for a story, Vallone came forward, saying he had started writing false letters when he was working for a Republican political campaign in 1994. During that campaign, staffers would write letters to the editor, which volunteers would sign and send in their names.

The Times and the Chronicle both verify letters to the editor by phoning the writer and sometimes by other means, but Vallone used free voicemail services to create fictitious identities, the Times reported. Vallone could not be reached for comment by E&P.

As Krupp's investigation progressed, the Times developed and implemented new procedures that Hatfield wouldn't discuss publicly. And with the publication of Sunday's article, the Chronicle has also started an investigation into any letters it received.

"We are certainly looking into it to determine if we also were targets of his letters, as the article indicated," John Diaz, the Chronicle's editorial-page editor, told E&P Monday afternoon. "It's obviously an area of great interest and concern to us."

Regardless of the outcome of the inquiry, Diaz said, the episode has called letter-verification procedures into question, and the Chronicle will "take steps to reduce the changes of this happening again."

But both Diaz and Hatfield acknowledge that there is probably no way to completely prevent false letters.

"I think it's probably not possible to build an absolute firewall against somebody who is bound and determined," Diaz said. Even with new measures, Hatfield agreed, "there is no fail-safe that I know of to guarantee that no [falsified] letter ever will get in there."

Both the Times and the Chronicle had caught Vallone for previous deceptions. The Times had caught him writing in the name of a local former mayor, and the Chronicle nailed him for plagiarizing portions of a letter from The Wall Street Journal -- a violation the paper corrected in print.

The papers simply didn't know that the same man was writing under other names. Only after Krupp's meticulous reporting did the facts become clear.

"She's the star of this show," Hatfield said. "This has certainly gotten her noticed here."


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