From AJR, May 1999 issue
The Chiquita Aftermath
A reporter's dishonesty scarred the lives of colleagues and tarnished a newspaper. Now a new editor strives to repair the damage at the Cincinnati Enquirer.
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
THE FLIGHT WAS CONSIDERED routine. The South Dakota Air National Guard would suit up the executive editor of a local paper and take him soaring through the sky aboard an A-7K jet fighter. The editor would soon see there was nothing to the National Guard flyovers. Maybe after the flight, the South Dakota Argus Leader would lay off on the criticism. Sure, the pilots would toy with the editor a little. But he'd be back down in no time, undoubtedly convinced of the jets' inherent safety. Maybe not.
The flight began uneventfully, and for a while Executive Editor Ward H. Bushee III was enjoying the scenery 20,000 feet over Iowa farmland. Suddenly, with Bushee watching so closely he could see the whites of the other pilot's eyes, the two jets collided in mid-air. The din was incredible: As the other plane clipped the tail of Bushee's jet, it sounded like a train wreck. Then there was a fireball.
"I ejected out of the plane on fire," recalls Bushee. "It was a surrealistic experience. I got to the top of the ejection and poof, the flames went out. You look down and it's completely quiet. All these pieces of the plane are shimmering down near you and you think, `Wow. I'm still alive.' "
Nine years later, the memory has yet to fade for Bushee, now 50, as he tells the tale for the umpteenth time in his new corner office on the 19th floor of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "If you get really close to a life and death situation, it changes your outlook," he says. "I'm not scared of flying anymore. I've had my accident. It's given me a perspective on how to behave in key pressure situations. Any stressful situation can't be worse than what I went through."
Pause. "I know what you are thinking," Bushee says. "That it's given me good training for this job."
The job he's referring to is one any editor might have had second thoughts about taking. In January, Bushee replaced Enquirer Editor Lawrence K. Beaupre, leaving behind a job he loved as editor of another Gannett newspaper, the Reno Gazette-Journal.
He inherited a deeply wounded newsroom.
It was a year ago this month, on May 3, that the Enquirer published an 18-page investigation of Chiquita Brands International, accusing the hometown company of bribing foreign officials, mistreating its Central American workers and using illegal means to get around foreign laws forbidding outside land ownership. But the paper's pride in the powerful articles was short-lived. Fifty-six days later, on June 28, the Enquirer shocked the newspaper world with an unusual front-page apology renouncing the series and announcing that it would pay Chiquita in excess of $10 million. (See "Bitter Fruit,")
In developing the story, Enquirer reporters Michael Gallagher and Cameron McWhirter employed many of the standard tools of a first-rate investigation: extensive interviews, travel, volumes of secret documents and land records.
But Gallagher went one step too far. With the help of an inside source, he illegally dialed into Chiquita's voice mail system and listened to dozens of messages left for Chiquita officials. When Enquirer executives learned what Gallagher had done and that he'd lied to them, they fired the reporter and quickly settled with Chiquita, hoping to avoid a lengthy and potentially more costly lawsuit.
Some have asked why the paper abandoned Gallagher and backed away from the explosive articles. But after Gallagher lied to so many people he had worked closely with, what credibility would he have had in court? "It's easy for journalists to criticize Gannett and the lawyers, but Gallagher did this to himself," McWhirter says. "How do you possibly back up somebody who is a felon?" As high-minded as his goal may have been in exposing alleged wrongdoing by Chiquita, Gallagher broke the law to get the story and misled his bosses and colleagues in the process.
Last September, Michael Brian Gallagher, 42, a prize-laden and once well-respected investigative reporter, pleaded guilty to two felony counts. He faces up to two-and-a-half years in prison, although he's likely to get off without jail time after signing a cooperation agreement with law authorities. (He also must deal with a civil suit filed against him by Chiquita.) To stay out of prison, Gallagher broke a cardinal rule in journalism ethics: He agreed to squeal on his sources. He's already provided enough information for state prosecutors to obtain an indictment against source George Ventura, a former Chiquita lawyer.
Gallagher's cooperation agreement reads in part: "Mr. Gallagher will be made available to the special prosecutor, his staff and members of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department for whatever amount of time that it takes, for a full and truthful disclosure and debriefing of all of Mr. Gallagher's activities and knowledge relative to the scope of our investigation. Mr. Gallagher shall provide a full, truthful and complete disclosure as to all `sources' and their activities, without limitation."
"He's Judas. He committed the ultimate sin in journalism," says Marc D. Mezibov, Ventura's lawyer. "He's Benedict Arnold or any other scoundrel you can think of."
Gallagher's acts didn't just short-circuit his own career. Victims of the collateral damage include the newspaper that gave him the opportunity to do world-class reporting, the mentor who shaped his career, and the teammate who spent a year of his life working tirelessly on the ambitious project, only to see it end in disaster.
Among those closely involved with the Chiquita series, only local news editor David Wells, a 25-year veteran, remains in place. Beaupre, 54, a well-regarded editor who dramatically improved the Enquirer in his six years there, left in semi-ignominy and is now conducting seminars at Gannett's corporate headquarters in Rosslyn, Virginia. McWhirter, 35, who was innocently dragged down by Gallagher, asked Gannett to find him another job. And while he has a good one, covering City Hall for the Detroit News, the Chiquita scars still hurt.
Rosemary Goudreau, the Enquirer's managing editor who started her new job six days before the apology ran, found herself joining a paper in emotional shambles with an editor virtually absent.
"I offered her the job before the whole thing exploded," Beaupre says. "I was honest at the time she was interviewing about where we were with Chiquita. She really walked into a tornado and really handled it well. It had to be the most difficult first six months for any managing editor in the country."
Newsroom employees still feel the sting of Chiquita on many levels: They've faced ridicule and uncertainty, they've lacked strong leadership for many months, and they've watched as more than a half-dozen reporters have departed.
"Things are more settled now," Goudreau says. "Until the editor arrived, there was a sense of limbo, a curiosity, an anxiety about who it was going to be and what it will mean. The message now is there's a strong foundation built here. We are trying to move forward day by day, worrying about putting out tomorrow's paper."
Gallagher's deceit is felt outside the paper as well. His actions spurred a $480,000 investigation, which required Hamilton County to dip into a reserve fund to hire a special prosecutor solely to look into the Chiquita affair. The probe, which ended in December, led to Gallagher's guilty plea, a cooperation agreement signed by McWhirter and a 10-count indictment of Ventura. Ventura, a married father of two, is accused of giving Gallagher and McWhirter voice mail codes and telling them how to access the system to retrieve messages intended for Chiquita employees. Gallagher testified last month at a pretrial hearing for Ventura and gave up his once-confidential source.
Ventura's attorney believes it could be the first time a source has been prosecuted criminally as a result of a reporter refusing to live up to his promises of anonymity.
AND WHAT OF GALLAGHER, THE MAN so many regard with contempt? "I haven't talked to the guy since things started unraveling, and it became clear he was lying," says McWhirter, "and I never will."
Gallagher isn't talking publicly, although his attorney, Patrick J. Hanley, says he might after he is sentenced for unlawful interception of a wire communication and unauthorized access to a voice mail system. Gallagher won't be sentenced until the Ventura case is over. "Mike is a longtime investigative reporter, and he obviously is clenching his teeth about some of the things being said about him by parties who have an ax to grind," Hanley says. "He can't wait to have some opportunity to address some of these issues."
A more sympathetic portrait of Gallagher can be gleaned from court records. Since he was initially scheduled for sentencing on March 25, friends, family and acquaintances wrote more than a dozen letters appealing for leniency to the Hamilton County court judge who will decide Gallagher's fate. Among them was a retired police chief from Westchester County, New York, where Gallagher used to report, as well as a former homicide chief for the New York State Police. "There were times when Mr. Gallagher had information, which if reported, would have adversely affected our ability to bring a case to a successful conclusion," wrote Michael E. Geary, a retired New York City Police Department detective. "Mr. Gallagher always did the right thing."
Three of Gallagher's sisters weighed in, as did his mother, Sarah Ann Gallagher. From the letters, a picture of the disgraced reporter's life emerges.
Gallagher grew up in a large, tightly knit Catholic family on the east side of Detroit. He is the third child in a family of seven, four girls and three boys. Sarah Ann Gallagher stayed home with the kids, raising them on her husband's "moderate income" in a religious house, "where we all prayed on our knees each night for strength to be the best people we could be with God's help," writes his mother.
The children attended Catholic schools, working after school and during summers, and all graduated from college. Only Mike went into journalism, a career his family members write that he was passionate about. To many who wrote, Gallagher's deception, while inexcusable, was motivated by high-minded ideals.
"He saw a wrong which had to be brought into the open no matter what the cost. He has always felt for others less fortunate than himself," wrote his mother in a four-page handwritten letter. "His whole background has led him to this point, where he saw an injustice and tried to right it."
His sister Colleen Gallagher, who lives in Michigan where most of Gallagher's family resides, told the judge that her brother cared deeply about what he saw happening to Chiquita workers in Central America. "I believe that is why when he became involved in the Chiquita story, and with his trip to South America, when he saw firsthand the suffering of people he perceived to be victims of Chiquita, he became emotionally involved, incensed and believed that he needed to do what he could to right what he saw as a grievous wrong. I believe that in his quest to do this, he will acknowledge that he made an error in judgment as to how he accessed information. He is responsible for that choice.... But I do not believe he made this choice for personal gain, or with criminal intent."
Gallagher has moved his wife and children out of their four-bedroom, $194,000 home outside Cincinnati to be near his family in Michigan. His wife, Lynn, who teaches children with special education needs, has gone back to work, leaving her husband to care for their two daughters, ages 2 and 4. His younger sister, Shawn Gallagher, tells what his life is like today in a letter to the judge. She says the couple have lost their home, their savings, their medical benefits and are in "serious debt to many people."
"Every day he stays home and cares for his children," Shawn writes. "Last year, our father suffered a massive stroke. Michael drives the 45 minutes to my father's home [their parents are divorced] several times a week, daughters in tow, to care for him. During the same week he was fired, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. While making endless drives back and forth alone to Cincinnati to meet with investigators, Michael came to my home to accompany me to my treatments. In November, our 63-year-old mother was given a death sentence with metastasized colon cancer. We are sinking here, Judge. Michael now goes to my mother's to clean her house, buy her groceries and take her to chemotherapy."
Gallagher's sisters believe their brother has already paid a high price for his crime. "I believe Mike's loss of employment, relocation of family and general humiliation for his situation has been enough of a price to pay," writes Maureen Gallagher. "He's lost almost everything in his attempt to expose injustice."
ONE PERSON WHO MOST certainly won't be writing a letter extolling Gallagher's stellar qualities is Larry Beaupre. But there was a time when he would have done so enthusiastically. The two have known each other for more than 10 years, since Beaupre, then editor of Gannett's Westchester newspapers, hired Gallagher. After Beaupre assumed the top spot in Cincinnati, he brought Gallagher along in 1995.
The editor had total confidence in Gallagher and McWhirter when they set out to investigate Chiquita in 1997. Today, it is only McWhirter whom he trusts, and who he believes is "completely innocent." And though he and Gannett deny it, there's little doubt that it's largely because of Gallagher that Beaupre left the Enquirer in November 1998 to become a corporate news executive for Gannett.
Every weekend he flies back from his new job outside Washington, D.C., to Cincinnati, where his wife and children remain until the summer. His wife has said she wants to attend Gallagher's sentencing just to throw eggs at him. Beaupre functions as a sort of an in-house consultant, working with Gannett's newspapers, doing critiques and putting on conferences for Gannett reporters, editors and executives, such as one in late March he helped with on the ethics of covering the news.
"The purpose is using Chiquita and other incidents that happened last year as a springboard to examine newsgathering conduct and think about news values and codes of ethics out there," he says over coffee. "I had a code of ethics at the Enquirer that we won't lie, cheat or steal, and of course Gallagher did all of them."
Beaupre is forbidden to discuss the specifics of what happened because of the secret settlement with Chiquita. But much of what transpired can be found in court records in the Ventura case and in material provided to authorities by Gallagher, who turned over his notes, 39 computer disks, a series of e-mails, his hard drive, and at least seven taped telephone conversations between Ventura and the reporters.
Gallagher's information is being used in the case against Ventura, who served as Chiquita's legal counsel in Honduras from 1991 to 1996, when he was fired. Ventura then sued Chiquita; the suit was eventually settled. Ventura joined Utah's largest law firm and had been made partner shortly before his September indictment. The firm is deferring the partnership.
Gallagher signed his agreement on September 10; Ventura was indicted eight days later. But Hanley, Gallagher's attorney, says other factors came into play. "The fact is that before Mike Gallagher said anything in this regard about George Ventura, it was pointed out to us that law enforcement was aware of Ventura's involvement," he says. "Obviously meaning that Chiquita was aware of Ventura before Gallagher said a word. It's time to start balancing this thing out."
According to Ventura's indictment, he gave certain Chiquita voice mail codes to Gallagher and McWhirter between September and November 1997. And not only did Ventura tell them how to penetrate the system, he told them when to do it, according to court records. And he warned them not to stay on the phone too long or else they might arouse suspicions.
Although McWhirter may have talked to someone named George Ventura, says McWhirter's lawyer, Roger Makley, he has never met Ventura and did not use his alleged information to break into Chiquita's voice mail system. "I had nothing to do in terms of the voice mails," McWhirter says. "I never, ever accessed anything."
In an editor's note with the Chiquita series, Beaupre wrote that the stories relied on "more than 2,000 copies of taped voice mail messages. These were provided by a high-level source who was one of several Chiquita executives with authority over the company's voice mail system." But Beaupre was mistaken. He believed that the voice mails were taped by a Chiquita insider and turned over to Gallagher. There is no one person with authority over the company's voice mail, according to Chiquita President Stephen Warshaw.
Beaupre had a hint before publication that there might be trouble. Gallagher testified that he told his boss in October 1997 about accessing Chiquita voice mail messages. He said he continued to do so until May 1998 even though he had been ordered to stop.
McWhirter felt exonerated after Gallagher testified on April 5. "I feel liberated," McWhirter says. " `Mr. Code of Silence Guy' finally came out and said: `I lied to everybody.' The guy sold us all out."
McWhirter had believed in Gallagher. "I have never been more careful or thorough on a project in my whole life," he says, "and I was very proud of it. Mike Gallagher robbed me of that. I don't know what Mike Gallagher was thinking, and I don't think I'll ever know. The question is going to haunt me the rest of my life: What the hell was he thinking?"
On December 1, McWhirter signed a cooperation agreement with the Hamilton County special prosecutor. The agreement requires him to testify in Chiquita-related criminal matters, says attorney Makley, who is being paid by Gannett. McWhirter cannot use the Fifth Amendment protection against incriminating himself, but he can use the Ohio shield law, which he did when he testified at Ventura's pretrial hearing. "I never named any names," McWhirter says.
"I've spent the last six months fighting for the right to protect my sources. That's what journalists are supposed to do. That's what I learned at Columbia Journalism School.'' But, he adds pointedly, "They didn't teach me what to do when your colleague lies to you."
Some say that because Gannett found a job for McWhirter in Detroit and one for Beaupre in Virginia, the two have gotten off easy. But that's clearly not the case. Both have paid an enormous price emotionally and professionally.
For McWhirter, the past year can only be described as hellish, even though he landed on his feet in January with a job he likes, one that pays more than he earned in Cincinnati. "It's been a horrible, horrible year," McWhirter says. "It's horrible to go through having your project tarnished.... The truth of the stories just went `poof.' "
Beaupre, too, bristles at the notion that he hasn't suffered enough. "Haven't I paid a price?" he asks. "There were two names on that apology for three days. One was my signature. I'd like to know what editor has had a greater humiliation than I have. I don't think anybody is more depressed about the outcome of Chiquita than I. But I also believe I shouldered my responsibility. I don't know how anybody could say Larry Beaupre got off scot-free. I think I've paid a huge price."
Beaupre came to the Enquirer in 1992, promising to "overturn rocks" and bring a harder edge to the newspaper. By all accounts, he succeeded. In 1996 and 1997, the Enquirer was named the state's best newspaper by the Ohio Associated Press. "Larry left us a better paper," says John Byczkowski, an Enquirer business reporter who has worked there for more than a dozen years.
"All the credit in the world goes to Larry and [Publisher] Harry Whipple," says Skip Tate, associate editor of Cincinnati Magazine. "Before that it was a weak paper. Larry and Harry came in and cracked the whip and made it a much better newspaper. They did look under rocks, as Larry initially promised."
Beaupre was serious about raising standards at the paper, and some took offense at his sometimes brusque style. He's been accused of not having good people skills.
"That always surprises me," he says. "I will acknowledge that I can be blunt and speak my mind. If something is not up to snuff, why would you not say that? I believe everyone is a grown-up and should be able to take criticism. It's left for others to judge, but I tried real hard to be nice."
Rosemary Goudreau, whom Beaupre hired to be his managing editor shortly before Chiquita blew up, says she thinks Beaupre is shy. "People don't understand Larry," she says. "I really admire what he did for the Enquirer, what he built, his principles. He was a franchise player. He defined this newspaper and put it on the map."
Regardless, many at the paper did find him intimidating--especially if they made an error and had to do the "Larry Walk," which meant going into his office and explaining why a correction was needed.
"The editor made people come in and talk about errors," Beaupre says. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I wanted people to know the top editor cares about accuracy."
WHILE SOME GREATLY ADMIRED Beaupre, others were not sorry to see him go. Into his office comes Bushee, who had been editor in Reno since 1990 and has a more laid-back style than his predecessor. Bushee is a longtime Gannetoid, having worked for the company since 1977.
He grew up in newspapers--he even swept the floors at his father's paper. Ward Bushee Jr. started at the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian in California in 1951 as managing editor and retired as editor in 1989. While his father spent 38 years at one paper, Ward the younger has hopscotched around the country working in a profession he thought as a history major he'd steer clear of. He's on his eighth newspaper job.
"I got out of college and didn't find many options," says Bushee, "so I went to work part time at my father's paper." From there, he was hired as a sports editor for the nearby Gilroy Dispatch and had several other sports gigs, including assistant managing editor/sports for Gannett's Westchester papers--where he was hired by Beaupre.
When Bushee is asked what his strengths are, he reluctantly replies that most people will tell you he's good with people, and "that I'm effective in using those skills." Good people skills may be exactly what are needed at the shell-shocked paper. Many say they are impressed that Bushee walked around the newsroom introducing himself and is working hard at getting to know the paper, the community and the staff.
"I've yet to hear anything negative about him," says Jeff Tiendall, who works on the paper's Web site. "Everybody I talked to about him is pretty much of the same mind--a nice guy who seems approachable. A couple of people told me they've already talked more to Bushee than to Larry."
Not surprisingly, Bushee refuses to discuss Chiquita or his plans for helping the paper transcend its fallout. He's thinking about the future, not dwelling on the past. There are a lot of adjustments for him. The 205-person staff of the Enquirer is more than twice what he managed in Reno, and the 196,000 daily circulation is three times that of his former paper.
"It's been a tough time for everyone at the paper," Bushee says. "I hope my arrival helps, but the newsroom needs to work through this on its own.... These people are giving their lives to the newspaper and to the community, and it's been a really hard thing for them to go through. It's a time for them to build trust in me, and that's why I'd prefer not speaking openly about my strategic plans for the future."
That's Bushee's way of talking around Chi-quita. He won't even say if the debacle gave him pause about giving up his job in Nevada. He will say this: "It was tough to leave Reno, because I never thought an opportunity like Cincinnati would ever come up for me. The Cincinnatis of the world don't usually come up." The irony, of course, is that had it not been for the Chiquita explosion, Cincinnati might never have come up for Bushee.