Break-ins and Cover-ups at Occidental? L.A. Times' Jason Felch Firing Raises More Questions | The Informer | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Break-ins and Cover-ups at Occidental? L.A. Times' Jason Felch Firing Raises More Questions

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Thu, Mar 27, 2014 at 5:00 AM
click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY PATRICK FARICY
  • Illustration by Patrick Faricy
Editors' note: Two paragraphs of this story were corrected April 1. See our note at the bottom of the piece.

On March 14, 2014, the Los Angeles Times made a virtually unprecedented retraction.

The retraction, first published online and later teased on A-1 of the paper's March 15 edition, concerned a three-month-old front-page story by Times investigative journalist Jason Felch, detailing how Occidental College had allegedly botched federal requirements under the Clery Act to report sexual assaults on its campus.

Felch wrote in the Dec. 7 story that the school - already under fire for its handling of rapes on campus - had failed to report 27 sex-assault complaints it received in 2012 regarding incidents on or near its bucolic Eagle Rock campus. According to Felch's research, Occidental got 34 complaints in 2012. But in its Clery-mandated Annual Fire, Safety and Security Report, the college reported only seven. 

Three months later, in early March, Occidental's public relations team met with Los Angeles Times editor Davan Maharaj in two closed-door meetings. Felch was not present. There, a "crisis management" team hired by the college showed Maharaj a PowerPoint presentation detailing the 27 sexual-assault complaints and arguing that the college had not been legally required to disclose any of them to the public. (Editor's note: See a statement from Occidental about Felch's reporting here. Also, this paragraph was corrected on April 1. See our note at the bottom of the story.)

The Times and its lawyers apparently were persuaded. The paper issued a nine-paragraph correction stating, "Documents reviewed by the Times this week show that the 27 incidents did not fall under the law's disclosure requirements for a variety of reasons. ... The Times regrets the errors in the articles."

Then the paper dropped a bombshell, stating that Felch had engaged in an affair with a source at Oxy and "Times editor Davan Maharaj dismissed Felch on Friday."

The national media quickly took note, with stories about the scandal hitting the Washington Post and New York Times.

But there's more to this story.

Felch's affair, which the reporter confessed to his editors weeks before he was fired, may have initially been discovered through an illegal break-in on the Occidental campus. Moreover, not long before Felch was fired, he had uncovered two potentially explosive stories about sexual assault that presented a serious threat to Occidental's reputation. Those articles were never published.

It is not clear how Felch's editors first became aware of the affair. (Other than a boilerplate statement, the L.A. Times and editor Maharaj declined comment, as did Felch.)

But photos and emails provided to the Weekly by a source at Occidental show that the locked workspace of the woman with whom Felch had become romantically involved, a professor, had been broken into just weeks before Felch was fired. The college source tells the Weekly that the professor's personal journal was stored in that workspace and included notes about her affair with Felch. After the break-in, journal pages detailing the affair were left splayed across the woman's desk.

An Occidental spokesman has vehemently denied the college having any involvement in the break-in.

According to Caroline Heldman, an associate professor of politics at Occidental who also heads up the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition, which was founded in 2012 to push the school to change its sexual assault policies, the break-in wasn't the first.

"This was the fifth break-in for people who sourced Jason's story," she says.
click to enlarge A campus alert confirms a break-in being reported March 3.
  • A campus alert confirms a break-in being reported March 3.

In an alert sent March 3 to faculty and students by campus safety and obtained by the Weekly, the Occidental community was warned that the break-in had taken place.

There was no sign of forced entry, which suggests someone keyed into the workspace without the woman's permission. According to Shirley Deutsch, a veteran employment and labor attorney in Los Angeles, "An employer must have some compelling, exigent circumstance for allegedly breaking into an office - such as there's an earthquake and they have to get in there and save her. ... It's the equivalent to me of illegally eavesdropping, if somebody went into her journals. That is not supposed to happen to anyone at work."

Heldman alleges that the break-in fits a pattern of other surveillance conducted against sexual-assault activists - including reading their emails and checking their phones.

"This sort of stalking has become so normal for us that, prior to Jason Felch's life getting destroyed, we had a good laugh after discovering these pranks," she says. "Obviously, we're not laughing now."

The break-in wasn't the only issue of concern on Oxy's campus. The Weekly has also learned that, in the months leading up to his firing, Felch was working on two highly controversial stories about Occidental. One involved John Sweet, a former longtime Oxy athletic trainer accused of sexually assaulting and harassing both male and female students - an issue aired in the campus newspaper, Occidental Weekly, which never gained major public attention. Coverage in the Times, surely, would have changed that.

The other article involved what some critics call extraordinarily lenient sanctions handed out by Oxy officials to young men found by the college to be responsible for rape - some of whom were allowed back on campus.

In firing Felch, Maharaj called his personal entanglement "a professional lapse of the kind that no news organization can tolerate." The editor claimed, "Felch acknowledged that, after the relationship ended, he continued to use the person as a source for future articles."

Felch fired back in a statement to the Weekly and other media outlets, saying, "When the relationship began, I stopped relying on the person as a source."

According to another source close to this issue, Felch's editors at the Times, including Maharaj, knew he was working on both the Sweet story and the sanctions story at the time of his firing.

Turn the page for more, including information about the disputed sexual assaults.

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