For a year, ex-Congressman Robert Dornan has charged that the Latino civic group Hermandad Mexicana Nacional stole his November 1996 election. Over the course of the same year, the Los Angeles Times' Orange County edition willfully repeated--and even embellished--many of Dornan's most outrageous claims against Hermandad. Dornan's charges--and the Times' coverage of them--were shot down last week when the Weekly revealed that District Attorney Mike Capizzi has investigated and found them groundless. This week, new evidence emerged that the Times' reporting on Hermandad was skewed by its own excessive ambition--and a secret deal between Dornan's legal team and reporters at the newspaper. On Sunday, the Napa Valley Register reported that Dornan's lead attorney, California Republican Party chief Michael J. Schroeder, told a group of conservative activists in northern California that he had an "information-sharing pact" with the Times to spread coverage of Dornan's claims.
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Schroeder later amended his remarks in an interview with Sacramento-based Times reporter Eric Bailey, saying that his agreement with the Times wasn't "formal." "I was talking to a very far-Right crowd," Schroeder told Bailey for a Dec. 9 Times story. "They believe media relations means not talking to the press. I tried to explain that this is an example of how the press can work for you rather than against you."
During its 11-month coverage of Dornan's attacks on Hermandad, the Times certainly seemed to work for Schroeder. The Napa Valley Register story reported that Schroeder said he gave the Times a three-month exclusive on the Dornan story and full access to his legal files. In exchange, Schroeder claimed the Times promised to assign two full-time reporters to keep the story alive.Contacted by the Weekly, Napa Valley Register reporter Tim Hearden said Schroeder told his audience he had adopted "an extremely cynical strategy," manipulating the Times' desire "to win Pulitzer Prizes."
The Times is unlikely to win a Pulitzer for its Hermandad coverage. But its lead reporter on the series, Peter Warren, was given the Orange County Press Club's 1996 investigative journalism award for breaking the story a month after Dornan's loss. That Dec. 27 article, a product of Schroeder's deal with the Times, lent the paper's credibility to Dornan's otherwise ludicrous conspiracy theory. It also guaranteed Dornan--and Warren--a national forum. Two weeks after Warren's bombshell, the district attorney raided Hermandad's Santa Ana offices; a series of politically driven investigations by state and federal agencies followed, as did an ongoing investigation driven by Dornan's former colleagues in the U.S. Congress. The story hit network news, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and wire services around the world. Participants in the feeding frenzy pointed to Times articles as the justification for their actions.The district attorney's decision last week took the hot air out of the whole campaign against Hermandad. But Times officials remain unrepentant. The Times' Orange County editor Bill Nottingham denies any deal with Schroeder: "I don't know what Mr. Schroeder actually said, but we've made no agreements with anyone. We've reported right down the middle, letting the chips fall as they may."
Nottingham's denial is so wildly at odds with evidence laid out for a year in the Weekly and in Schroeder's comments last week that it barely deserves the 519 words we've already given it. So we'll add just a few more--six borrowed from a Dec. 4 Times headline ("Hermandad Won't Face Charges by DA") and suggest six others for tomorrow's edition: "Schroeder Played Times Like a Piano."