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Confounded by Conflict

Sometime in the late 1990s Robin Biesen took a part-time job helping a prominent attorney in Lake County, Indiana, research personal-injury cases. A former EMT, Biesen knew her way around medical issues.

But Peter Benjamin wasn’t merely a lawyer. Elected the Lake County auditor in 1999, he was one of the most glamorous politicians in northwest Indiana. And Biesen wasn’t simply a single mother who wanted to make a few extra bucks. She was a top reporter for the Munster-based Times, the biggest daily paper in the region.

It’s not as if Benjamin was someone Biesen never covered. A quick search of the Times’s excellent online archives indicates that during the 90s she wrote about him dozens of times. In a now infamous 1997 interview, she quoted him boasting about his “dream team” of financial whizzes who’d taken on the Indiana state government and saved Lake County landowners $13.6 million in property taxes.

Benjamin was riding high back then. He’d made his name as a populist crusading for property tax reform. Did Biesen champion him? “Yeah, sure,” says a former Times reporter who, like almost everyone else from the Times I talked to, didn’t want to be named. “The whole paper did. It wasn’t just Robin. It was this whole crusade for tax reform, and the broader theme of fighting the machine, the political establishment. Robin wasn’t operating in some kind of vacuum. She was getting encouragement from the editors.”

But in Lake County riding high often means no more than getting while the getting’s good. The distance Benjamin eventually fell was encapsulated in one bizarre sentence of a story published in the Times last January 1. The piece was written by a reporter other than Biesen, and it began on a cheery note: “Peter Benjamin looked relaxed in his last day as Lake County auditor, touting his accomplishments.” Benjamin went on about the “professionalism” and “efficiency” he’d brought to the office.

Then came the sentence. “He said he never seriously considered resigning as auditor after he was indicted on bribery, money laundering, fraud, bank fraud, mail fraud, aiding and abetting prostitution/mail fraud and witness tampering because he had unfinished business in the office to attend to.” Benjamin told the reporter, “I think a resignation would have been viewed by many people as an admission of guilt.”

No doubt it would have been. But before the month was up he’d pleaded guilty anyway to some of these federal charges. He hasn’t been sentenced yet because he’s working with a federal “public integrity unit” that’s investigating corruption in Lake County.

I’m told that four years ago some Times reporters asked their bosses if some kind of relationship existed between Benjamin and Biesen and were told no. Two years ago the disciplinary commission of the Indiana Supreme Court held hearings to decide whether Benjamin–who’d been accused of having a buddy sign in for him at legal education seminars he was required to attend–should lose his law license. (He did lose it, and he lost his license to practice in Illinois five months later.) Biesen’s name turned up on a list of possible witnesses on Benjamin’s behalf, and that’s when a curious Times reporter at the hearing found out she’d spent some time on his payroll.

“We all went nuts,” says another Times reporter. “She’d shouted the praises of this guy who was obviously a crook. The reporter who covered that hearing went to senior management and raised the issue. There was an in-house investigation, and a lot of us assumed she’d be out the door.”

She wasn’t. “Four or five weeks later,” the Times reporter continues, “an e-mail went out to the newsroom explaining that she’d been reassigned to Porter County because of an ethical issue. It didn’t necessarily find her culpable of anything, but there was an appearance of impropriety. A lot of us were like, ‘What the hell? Why wasn’t she sacked?'”

Many reporters assumed Biesen wasn’t sacked because executive editor William Nangle liked her and was sticking by her. But as I hear it, Biesen defended herself by insisting she’d told Nangle about working for Benjamin, and Nangle couldn’t swear she hadn’t. Neither Biesen nor Nangle would talk to me, but someone close to the editor says Nangle conceded that “she might have been saying something to him and he wasn’t paying attention and he said OK. It’s improbable to me that he would have understood such a conversation’s implications and said go ahead. But it is possible, given the tensions and business of the newsroom, that he’d have not really listened. And it’s also possible the conversation never occurred.”

At any rate, Biesen wound up exiled to Valparaiso, one county away from the action. Reporters consoled themselves with the thought that if Nangle hadn’t fired her, at least he’d sent her to Siberia. While she labored there, Nangle organized a committee to rewrite the paper’s code of ethics–as if a new code would make things right. But the bitterness lingered. Biesen’s moonlighting wasn’t public knowledge, but Lake County pols knew about it, and it got thrown in Times reporters’ faces. Some colleagues liked Biesen and thought of her as a good person and a good reporter who’d made a stupid mistake. A lot of them seethed. A few refused to work on projects with her. “It haunted her,” an editor says.

The Chicago dailies pay northwest Indiana no attention, so two local papers, the Times and the Post-Tribune in Gary, have one of the rankest news belts in America to themselves. A lot of reporters hooked on the region eventually work at both papers. Biesen started at the Post-Tribune. Steve Walsh, a political writer for the Post-Tribune, used to work at the Times.

On July 18 Walsh broke the story of Benjamin and Biesen. It now appeared, he wrote, that the “journalistic enthusiasm” for the “self-described leader of a ‘dream team'” had been more than “simple swooning over the man of the moment.” A reporter who’d written “some of the most generously worded articles…was being paid by Benjamin to work on personal injury cases.” Records indicated that Biesen had been paid several hundred dollars by Benjamin in April, May, and June of 1999, Walsh reported, and during that time she’d written a dozen stories quoting him. Because Benjamin’s private records were so hard to come by, Walsh couldn’t be sure whether Biesen had worked for him longer than that.

There was nothing in Walsh’s story that Times editors shouldn’t have known for years, but to read about it in the competition was traumatizing. Nangle had already brought Biesen back to Lake County, and she assumed she’d been judged and punished and had redeemed herself with hard work. But no. Nangle promptly canceled her redemption, and she found herself on “vacation” while reporter Deborah Gruszecki conducted a new investigation. Staff meetings were scheduled, memos flew. I received a memo written anonymously to Lisa Daugherty, director of human resources. “What made this all so embarrassing to the paper,” it said, “is that it was not addressed properly when it happened. Addressed at the time, it would have been dismissed as a poor choice by a former reporter. Years later, it’s viewed as the paper’s editor-endorsed approach to reporting. We can barely hold our heads up out there.

“The paper has been a joke in Lake County ever since it happened–moving her to Porter didn’t solve a thing. What’s worse is that in recent months [Nangle]’s moved her back to Munster and has been trying to reestablish her on important beats. He was waiting for it to blow over and exhibited no leadership, or judgement, or commitment to any real ethical standards.”

The memo’s author predicted that an upcoming staff meeting with publisher William Monopoli would be a “joke” if Nangle attended. “People in the newsroom are afraid to ask the real questions…with their boss standing there….Going in, it is assumed that Biesen is going to disappear and Nangle is going to get off scot-free.”

The meetings were held August 6 at the Times offices in Munster, Valparaiso, and Crown Point. Sure enough, Nangle was there alongside Monopoli, and together they announced that Biesen had resigned–even before Gruszecki could wrap up her investigation. “The meeting was a farce,” I was told by anonymous e-mail. “The editor’s role in sweeping this under the rug the first time was not addressed.” Monopoli peevishly complained that he hadn’t even come to the Times until 2002 and Walsh hadn’t made that clear.

The next morning a letter to readers from Monopoli and Nangle occupied half a page of the Times. When I called Nangle he deferred to Monopoli; Monopoli–citing concern for Biesen’s privacy–deferred to their letter. “It represents what the Times can say about the issue,” he told me. “Any other details that might come to mind are addressed in the four corners of that letter. If one reads with care our letter to the readers, that represents the maximum the Times is able to say.”

So I read it with care. And instead of being an exercise in subtle inference, the joint statement was weasel worded and sanctimonious. The headline announced, “Paper’s mission is to be fair, accurate, trustworthy,” and the first several sentences stressed the Times’s high sense of responsibility and hailed an ethics policy “setting the highest standards of professional conduct.”

Eventually Monopoli and Nangle got to the point. “That policy was adopted several months before The TIMES has had to deal with a question raised about the conduct of one of its own reporters.” Apparently it wasn’t until the Post-Tribune made a public issue of Biesen’s conduct that the Times felt it had to deal with it. “Last month,” they went on, “a published report said a member of our staff was paid to work for an elected official while writing about that official.”

Monopoli and Nangle paused in their narrative to let it be known that this published report “contained inaccuracies, and cited episodes that were alleged to have occurred more than four years ago.” (In the most flagrant inaccuracy I spotted, Biesen was described as a former nurse instead of a former EMT.) Yet despite the report’s flaws, “management of The TIMES aggressively investigated” its contents. A “previous inquiry” was reopened, and “before the new internal enquiry was completed, the reporter, Robin Biesen, resigned.” There were several more sentences devoted to guiding principles, and a ringing statement on credibility by a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The new ethics policy is a long document. The section headed “Conflict” condemns Biesen’s sin in no uncertain terms. “The newspaper and its staff must make every effort to be free of any conflict of interest. Even the appearance of obligation to or inappropriate involvement with sources must be avoided….All outside employment should be disclosed to the executive editor and cannot, in any manner, compromise the newspaper or provide a perception of conflict.”

The highest honor a Hoosier can receive from the state is the Sagamore of the Wabash award, which is given by the governor as he sees fit. Last October 23, Governor Frank O’Bannon showed up at the Times’s Munster headquarters for a meeting. To Nangle’s surprise, his wife and kids and a big cake also made an appearance, and O’Bannon added to the excitement by bringing along several Democratic candidates for office. The governor pronounced Nangle a Sagamore of the Wabash.

A Times reporter pointed out to Nangle that the “Conflict” section of the new ethics policy decrees that staff “should refuse awards…which might create the appearance of a conflict of interest. This includes, but is not limited to, organizations such as unions, businesses and government agencies.” Of course the new code hadn’t formally been ratified. What’s more, it stipulated that “exceptions must be approved by the publisher or executive editor.” Nangle could give himself permission to accept this award, and that must be what he did.

A Little Moral Clarity

Last week I wrote to defend the Sun-Times against the criticism of Cardinal George, who publicly condemned as a “false accusation” the headline “Pope Launches Global Campaign Vs. Gays.” I received an e-mail from a reader who pleasantly asked me to answer any one of three questions: (1) Could I offer an example of a headline I would find unfair to Catholics? (2) Did I think the Sun-Times would ever print the same kind of headline about Islam or Judaism? (3) Did I think that in the next ten years or so the “global campaign” would do more harm to gays than their own “self-inflicted wounds (AIDS)?”

Here are three answers: (1) “Catholics Hate Gays.” (2) Of course, if Islamic or Judaic world leaders were instructing every public official of their faith that they have a “moral duty” to oppose the civil (not sacramental) marriage of gays. (3) I have no idea, and I balk at this description of AIDS. But it is true that the deepest wounds are often self-inflicted. That being so, the cardinal might spend less time fretting about the Sun-Times than he does about the pope’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose recent document on gay marriage the paper’s headline was trying to encapsulate.

Here’s a piece of it: “If it is true that all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions, Catholic politicians are obliged to do so in a particular way, in keeping with their responsibility as politicians….When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed…the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral. When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is already in force, the Catholic politician must oppose it in the ways that are possible to him and make his opposition known; it is his duty to witness to the truth.”

The congregation didn’t ask itself what sympathetic response the church might make to gay love. Homosexual acts “go against the natural moral law,” it instructed, and gay marriage is something for Catholics to oppose with whatever weapons are at hand. “The approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.” Though not every Catholic politician in every country of the world is limited to the weapons of a democracy, there was no weighing of means and ends.

Does Cardinal George think gays shouldn’t take this directive personally? That it’s a stretch to detect in it any actual hostility?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Post-Tribune.