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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.


click to enlarge Caroline Heldman says critics of the college have suffered numerous break-ins. - TED SOQUI
  • Ted Soqui
  • Caroline Heldman says critics of the college have suffered numerous break-ins.
Numerous news outlets have reported on Felch's firing, many of them questioning why he was given the ax. Affairs between reporters and their sources aren't uncommon, though they are strongly discouraged if not outright banned. It is fairly uncommon to see journalists fired over it, however, and unusual for them to be publicly castigated by their employer. The Wrap reported that Maharaj had to meet with his paper's investigative staff "to assuage concerns."

At 40, Felch had more than a decade of investigative reporting experience at the Times. He was a 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist for exposing, along with then - Times reporter Ralph Frammolino, looted antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Trust. And along with reporters Jason Song and Doug Smith, his exposé about incompetent LAUSD instructors, "Grading the Teachers," generated huge page views and a protest by United Teacher Los Angeles.

Felch's critics - who, like his backers, declined to go on the record - say he was a hothead who was often assigned to a team, and less often worked the big stories on his own.

But the real question in Felch's firing comes back to the accuracy of that Dec. 7 story. And the Weekly has determined that it is likely some of the 27 unreported sexual-assault allegations unearthed by Felch - and retracted by the Times - should not have been retracted. 

If that's true, it means Felch was fired mostly for having the bad judgment to sleep with a source on a highly controversial story, a story about which he should have realized there would be major blowback.

At Occidental, a tranquil liberal arts college that counts President Barack Obama as one of its former students, problems with sexual assault and its reporting have been bubbling up for years.

According to the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition, faculty members have been butting heads with the administration over this issue since 2007.

The tension came to a head in April 2013 when a group of 37 students filed two federal complaints. One alleged that Oxy hadn't been properly tracking sexual assaults and rape on campus, and had been intimidating students and discouraging them from reporting rapes. The other claimed that the school wasn't in compliance with Title IX, a federal regulation that prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of sex.

In September, at least 10 of the students settled their case with the school, accepting an undisclosed sum. The complaints are still being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education.

However, the students appeared to be validated by an October 2013 Huffington Post article in which Occidental officials admitted they'd underreported their sexual-assault allegations from 2011.

At around the same time that the students settled, Jason Felch began reporting - along with L.A. Times education reporter Jason Song - on the crisis at Oxy. Last fall and winter, they published a number of stories on the persisting disputes.

After Felch penned the Dec. 7 story about the 2012 assault numbers, which the Times has now retracted, three months passed. Felch told L.A. Observed that he did not hear from Jim Tranquada, Occidental's lead spokesman, or anyone else at Occidental, requesting a correction about those numbers - although the Times did run a small correction on a different point in Felch's story. During that period, Felch was pursuing stories on allegations against coach Sweet and the allegedly watered-down sanctions against rapists. (Editor's note: This paragraph was corrected on April 1. See our note at the bottom of the story.)

On Jan. 20, however, the college apparently hired communications firm G.F. Bunting+Co. (That date is disputed by critics, who allege the firm was involved far earlier.)

Headed by former L.A. Times investigative reporter Glenn Bunting, the firm specializes in handling public relations crises. Together with Occidental, Bunting put together the PowerPoint slideshow aimed at persuading Maharaj that Felch's Dec. 7 story was inaccurate.

Interestingly, as L.A. Observed has also reported, the firm employs Felch's former writing partner at the Times, Ralph Frammolino. Frammolino and Felch reportedly had a falling out years before, during their time co-authoring a book on the Getty Center case. Yet one source says he heard that Frammolino himself, on behalf of Bunting's firm, "first approached Oxy in October, saying he was a writing friend of Jason's and felt sure he could influence the story." Felch, the source said, reportedly refused to talk to his old writing partner.

Bunting declined comment.

All those connections might not be a big deal if Felch's story had been libelous. But the Weekly's reporting suggests that the truth about Occidental's duties to report may have been obscured in the PowerPoint.

According to a statement Felch sent to the Weekly, the Times has not shown him the details of what was said. The details of the slideshow remain a mystery.

But the Weekly has learned that Occidental's team told Maharaj that 18 of the 27 complaints omitted from its annual safety report had been only for "sexual misconduct," not "sexual crime," and thus not required to be reported under the federal Clery Act.

Moreover, the hired team told Maharaj that six of the other cases occurred off-campus, as defined by federal law. The Times correction stated that these cases happened "beyond the boundaries that Occidental determined were covered by the act."

Finally, according to someone who knows about that meeting, the Bunting team claimed that the remaining three cases at issue had already been reported in 2011. That left Oxy with zero cases wrongfully omitted from its report.

But the truth, at minimum, appears a bit more complicated.

Turn the page for more details, including how Oxy still has reporting problems today.

click to enlarge Occidental College - TED SOQUI
  • Ted Soqui
  • Occidental College
The Clery Act requires colleges to make public any report of sexual assault or rape. If Oxy received 34 allegations, all would be required to be reported, even if the college found them dubious, says Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center and an expert in the Clery Act.

"It is not reports of resolutions, and it's not reports of findings of responsibility," she says. "Those are separate questions. ... There's no requirement that there be a finding of responsibility for it to be reported."

According to a person familiar with the process that unfolded between Oxy, its public relations team and the Times, some of the 18 cases included "misconduct such as inappropriate texting, exposing genitals over Skype, use of gender-based slurs, and verbal and emotional partner violence." If that's an accurate summation, Goss Graves acknowledges, the college would not be required to report.

But while people in the room couldn't provide detailed breakdowns of which incidents fell into which categories, it appears that some of the 18 cases may have been discounted because the college determined that the incidents were consensual. (Through its spokesman, the college disputes this. See its letter in the Comments section.)

If a victim's consent was ever raised as a reason not to report, that's a big problem, according to Goss Graves. Under federal law, colleges must publicly report any allegation of sexual assault - regardless of whether officials deem it consensual: "They shouldn't be taking things that are publicly reportable and deem them not publicly reportable." 

Regarding Maharaj's claim that a handful of the 27 incidents occurred "off-campus" and thus need not be included in the annual safety report, the Weekly has learned that only last year, Occidental officials redefined what "off-campus" meant, making the legally required reporting area smaller.

Oxy has argued that it was merely correcting erroneous campus boundaries - but that change apparently eliminated, retroactively, the need to report six incidents. (See Occidental's letter disputing this in the Comments section.)

Goss Graves says she is not sure how a boundary change made in 2013 would affect the college's Clery Act reporting duties for 2012. "The institution should know what is their campus and what is the area that is immediately surrounding their campus," she says.

And beyond the confusion of what should have been reported, it's clear Felch was operating in good faith at the time he alleged the college's Clery reporting had omitted 27 assaults. That allegation, after all, was laid out in a federal complaint made by students. Both Occidental's dean of students and assistant dean of students had told faculty in several meetings that there had been 34 cases of sexual assault and rape reported to the college in 2012 - raising the question of why only seven were reported. The dean of students also told faculty members that the college failed to report some Clery cases because it didn't realize it had to include anonymous allegations (as, in fact, it does).

The Weekly has also learned that Occidental has even now not solved its reporting problems. The Weekly's review of a public document at Campus Safety that is supposed to contain information about all Clery reportable crimes found only four reports of sexual assault or battery in all of 2012, compared with the 34 reported by Felch and the seven that Oxy itself has already conceded.

Explaining this discrepancy, Occidental spokesman Tranquada conceded to the Weekly that the Office of Dean of Students had been ignoring federal reporting requirements.

"In 2012, out of concern for student confidentiality, the Dean of Students office did not always communicate to Campus Safety when a student initiated the sexual-misconduct process or otherwise reported a sexual assault," Tranquada said in a March 24 email. This behavior "resulted in some sexual assaults appearing on [the safety report] but not in the Daily Crime Log. This practice has since been changed, which is one of the improvements we've made to our Clery reporting."

As to Felch's firing shortly before his completion of the explosive story about former coach John Sweet, campus newspaper Occidental Weekly reported in March 2013 that the athletic trainer, who worked at Oxy for 37 years, has been accused by male and female students of sexual assault and harassment.

According to that March 27 article, a student athlete alleged that Sweet touched him inappropriately while stretching him out. "It would be one of those things where he'd be stretching me out, and I'd be like, 'Something about this isn't right.' ... His hands would get closer and closer to questionable spots. It got to the point where it would be really uncomfortable. ... It was almost as if he was testing the waters to see if I would acknowledge it."

Sweet was first accused of harassment in 2009 by Emily Niklaus, a former Occidental student. Her story was reported by Occidental Weekly in April 2013, which quoted Niklaus as saying, "When he asked me what type of underwear I was wearing, I knew this wasn't normal." The school newspaper went on to report that Sweet's schedule was changed so he would no longer work with "impacted student athletes"; he was required to attend sexual misconduct training, and remained in his job on campus.

According to Occidental Weekly, Sweet was allowed to resign.

According to a source familiar with the Times coverage, Felch was working on a follow-up to the alleged Sweet scandal and complaints filed by students. The same source says Felch's editors at the L.A. Times, including Maharaj, knew he was working on a story about Sweet - and another one involving the lenient penalties given to students found responsible for sexual assault and rape through the campus judicial process.

At least one of those men was allowed back on campus and, according to the federal complaint filed by students in April, raped yet another student.

The L.A. Times has yet to report on either matter.

See also: Rape at Occidental: Official Hush-Up Shatters Trust

Editor's note: A reference in a previous version of this story referred incorrectly to a meeting between Occidental and the L.A. Times. Occidental's outside public relations team attended the meeting, not "Occidental officials." Also, our story failed to mention a correction Occidental asked for - - and received - from the L.A. Times after Jason Felch's controversial Dec. 7 story. The Times ran a brief correction stating that, contrary to Felch's story, it had been Occidental staff, and not its president, who met with a student accused of sexual assault. We regret both errors.

Occidental has also written a lengthy letter alleging additional errors; we agreed to post it in the Comments section below. In light of their allegations of inaccuracies, we asked them to share the PowerPoint presentation shown to the Times. They declined.

Follow the writer on Twitter @JessicaPauline. Follow @LAWeekly

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