Journalism experts and former employees of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) are asking questions about the George Soros-funded organization following news that CPI knowingly violated federal law in its 2010 bluefin tuna fishing report Looting the Seas.
Despite warnings from its legal counsel, the group knowingly violated the federal Computer Abuse and Fraud Act by accessing an inter-governmental database, the Washington Free Beacon reported Wednesday. It also appears that CPI may have paid a source for such access, a charge the group denies.
The new revelations in the hacking scandal are the latest blow to the embattled organization, which has faced budget shortfalls and multiple rounds of layoffs in recent months.
One former CPI reporter said the organization had badly damaged its journalistic reputation in what may have been a misguided attempt to impress donors.
"After (CPI founder) Charles Lewis left, the organization faced budget setbacks. I think CPI got to a point where it needed to do investigative journalism projects that would turn donors’ heads. It sounds like they were out of their element," the former reporter said.
"CPI has tried to build a reputation as a group that applies quality investigative journalism techniques to online media. [Looting the Seas] definitely undercuts that reputation," the former reporter added.
"Does the public's right to know supersede legal concerns? Sometimes, but not often," said Lois Boynton, an associate professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina.
"In fact, deciding to break a law should be very carefully assessed—the media should determine whether all other means of getting to the truth have been exhausted, for example, and whether the information they are after is extremely crucial for the public to be able to make informed decisions," Boynton said.
The Center for Public Integrity won several "top journalism awards" for Looting the Seas, according to an April 2011 post on the CPI website by communications director Randy Barrett.
CPI received the 2010 Whitman Bassow Award from the Overseas Press Club, Barrett wrote, citing a statement from Overseas Press Club judges calling Looting the Seas an "outstanding effort by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists," CPI’s international affiliate.
The Whitman Bassow Award is presented to "the best reporting in any medium on international environmental issues," according to the Overseas Press Club website.
Overseas Press Club executive director Sonya Fry told the Free Beacon that her organization did not evaluate CPI’s journalistic methods in granting the award.
"We don’t vet news organizations. We assume that the organizations that submit to us—we assume they’re submitting their own work. We’re a staff of two. We can’t vet everything," Fry said.
"I’ve been here 18 years. There was one another instance in which something came out about a story that we gave an award to—it won the Pulitzer Prize too—but neither of us pulled that award. We don’t really pull awards," Fry said.
"I’m not a journalist myself. I can’t really comment on journalistic ethics," Fry said.
The Overseas Press Club judges journalism through an online submission process.
"We have 27 awards," Fry said. "CPI submitted their project for the award. They paid us $200 for submission."
CPI communications director Randy Barrett declined to be interviewed over the phone and would not answer a list of emailed questions.
Instead, Barrett sent the Free Beacon a CPI statement Wednesday titled "The Center Stands Firmly Behind its Work."
"This project required journalistic and legal judgment calls about the work which was entirely focused on counting dwindling stocks of blue fin tuna and was clearly in the public interest," according to CPI’s statement.
Barrett’s statement also said that CPI, under the direction of the "dean of American journalism," had conducted its own audit that cleared the Center of any misconduct.
"Former Center Board member Bill Kovach, considered the dean of American journalism, conducted a review of the investigation’s ethics and methodology," Barrett wrote. "His conclusion was that the work was ‘ethical, sound, and fully in the public interest.’"
But Kovach told Politico—which first wrote about the controversy late last year—that he served less as an investigator and more as a "mediator" between feuding CPI staffers. His investigation was followed by a report from outside counsel Levine Sullivan Koch and Schulz concluding that CPI violated federal law in its tuna report.
CPI illegally obtained a password to the database of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) from Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, a paid consultant to the Looting the Seas project who received the password from an ICCAT member-country delegate, according to legal documents obtained by the Free Beacon.
Bregazzi provided the password to CPI before he was retained as a consultant on Looting the Seas, according to former CPI journalist David Kaplan’s January 2011 resignation letter.
When analyzing the journalistic ethics of a particular story, Professor Boynton said, "It’s also important to consider the motivation of the source providing the access to the information. In other words, how are the media being ‘used’ to further an agenda?"
Paying sources, regardless of the information they are providing, is generally frowned upon in American media.
"Most reputable news organizations do not pay sources for information. To do so can undermine the integrity of the information," writes NYU professor Adam L. Penenberg in the NYU Journalism Handbook for Students.
Bregazzi served as an official Greenpeace observer to at least four Special and Ordinary Meetings of ICCAT in Croatia.
CPI chief operating officer Ellen McPeake has her own ties to the activist environmental organization, having served on the board of Greenpeace and worked as Greenpeace COO.
CPI was accused of coordinating with Greenpeace in August 2011 when the nonprofit news organization and the environmental advocacy group both published reports on Koch Industries’ safety policies on the same day.
CPI communications director Barrett told Politico that a deal was arranged to allow his organization to publish its study first, though CPI failed to mention the coordination until pressed by the Politico reporter.
Bregazzi declined to answer questions emailed to him by the Washington Free Beacon.
"As you can easily imagine at this point, I do not wish to further entertain any communication whatsoever with you or your newspaper," wrote Bregazzi in an email.
"I must therefore ask you to refrain from ever getting in touch with me again, as I will definitively explore other options to have my name fully cleared from such a mediocre botch," Bregazzi wrote.
The CPI Board mandated staff training sessions in the aftermath of the tuna controversy.
"Ultimately, if a journalist or media outlet decides to break the law, he also has to be aware of and ready to face the consequences," said Professor Boynton.
Published under: Media