Simpson Irks USA Today

Posted June 4, 2003 at 6:45pm

Ever since it was revealed that Jayson Blair hoodwinked The New York Times into printing bogus stories, much attention has been paid to journalism ethics.

Now comes word that journalists aren’t the only ones who can get something questionable past the editors of the nation’s premier newspapers.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and his representatives convinced USA Today, the nation’s largest newspaper, to run an opinion piece on a topic in which the former Senator-turned-lobbyist had a financial stake.

After inquiries from Roll Call, USA Today said it will run a clarification today reporting that it did not know that Simpson was paid by an outside company to write the piece and has a financial stake in the issue he wrote about.

“We would never run something by a lobbyist who is hiding the fact that he is a lobbyist,” said Carol Stevens, the editor of the paper’s editorial page.

At issue is an op-ed column in which Simpson alleged last week that the nation’s five largest airlines have cornered the market for online airfares by promoting federal regulations that favor industry-owned Orbitz.

“It’s a company store for a group that already controls more that 70 percent of domestic flights and more than 90 percent of domestic bookings,” Simpson charged.

However, Simpson failed to tell USA Today that he and his lobbying firm, Tongour Simpson Holsclaw Lytle LLC, were paid to write the piece by one of Orbitz’s leading competitors, Galileo International, which runs TravelGalileo.com.

Simpson’s firm is also currently in talks about a formal lobbying contract with Galileo.

“We are in discussions about doing some work for them,” confirmed Michael Tongour, a partner at the firm and an aide to Simpson when he served in the Senate.

Galileo President and CEO Sam Galeotos is a native of the Senator’s hometown, Cheyenne, Wyo., and is a longtime friend of the former Senator.

USA Today has a policy of asking writers if “they have any connections whatsoever or are a paid consultant” to companies involved in policy issues they write about, Stevens said.

She added, “Two of our editors were assured by two of their people that he had no interest.”

Stevens said she “would not have run” the piece if she had known about Simpson’s ties to Galileo.

Tongour blamed the matter on miscommunication between Simpson, Galileo and a public relations firm that placed the piece in the newspaper.

“I never had a relationship or conversation with USA Today,” Tongour said. “Simpson is not aware of any of this stuff.”

The dispute highlights the slippery definition of what exactly constitutes “lobbying” in an official sense.

“A lot of op-ed pieces are written by people who are asked,” Tongour said, adding that the piece does not qualify as lobbying.

“I just don’t think this constitutes meeting with Members of Congress and trying to influence them,” Tongour said. “It’s not like you are talking to a Member of Congress.”

In the piece, published May 28, Simpson wrote that lobbyists for the largest U.S. airlines are advancing rule changes at the Transportation Department that will “let the big airlines keep their best fares for themselves and Orbitz.”

“That would not be good for consumers, millions of whom have come to rely on independent Web sites and agents for their airline tickets,” he wrote. “Changing the rules of the game to once again tilt the playing field in big airlines’ favor will not revive the sluggish travel industry. Nor is it the right thing to do.”

Simpson added, “If the White House does not stand up for independent businesses and consumers, then the Senate should.”