Lobbyist Takes Fall in Simpson Op-Ed Flap

Posted June 11, 2003 at 6:16pm

The lobbyist who helped place Sen. Alan Simpson’s (R-Wyo.) controversial op-ed piece in USA Today was forced to resign this week.

Ernest Baynard resigned his post as a top lobbyist for online travel agent Galileo International after it was revealed that he told editors at the nation’s largest newspaper that Simpson had no financial stake in an opinion piece about the industry.

As Roll Call reported last week, Simpson and his firm — Tongour Simpson Holsclaw Lytle LLC — were paid by Galileo to sign the piece. Simpson also is a personal friend of the company’s chief executive, Cheyenne, Wyo., native Sam Galeotos.

“I bear the ultimate responsibility for what happened and take that responsibility very seriously,” Baynard wrote in his Monday letter resigning from the Galileo account.

Baynard, a lobbyist with Mullen & Co., organized Galileo’s efforts to block Department of Transportation rules that would benefit industry leader Orbitz.

In the May 29 column, Simpson charged that Orbitz has cornered the market for online airline tickets and urged his former colleagues in the Senate to block new rules.

Carol Stevens, USA Today’s editorial page editor, said the newspaper would not have published Simpson’s opinion piece if it had known of Simpson’s ties to Galileo.

“We were assured orally twice that Simpson absolutely had no close ties and no financial interest,” Stevens said. “It was a lie.”

Both Simpson and Galileo executives insist that the former Senator bears no blame because he was never personally involved in writing or placing the article that was published under his name.

“I didn’t know a goddamn thing about USA Today,” Simpson said in a telephone interview from his home in Cheyenne. “I got paid for doing the op-ed piece. I did not know where it was going to go. I received the money and went back to bed.”

Simpson said he has never met the lobbyist in question. “I don’t even know him,” he said.

Executives at Galileo and its parent company, Cendant Corp., have also sought to defend Simpson. In a letter to the editor of Roll Call, Cendant spokeswoman Dawn Lyon said “incorrect information” was given to USA Today “without the knowledge of Senator Simpson or his firm. As a result, all ties to the consultants in question have been severed.”

She continued: “There is no excuse for what happened. This is simply not the way we do business. We apologize for any incorrect information put out in our name. More importantly, we deeply regret any negative reflection on Senator Simpson and his Washington office partners who are above reproach in this matter.”

Sources close to the situation say the resignation and the strong defense of Simpson came after the former Senator contacted Galeotos, the president of Galileo and a personal friend.

Both Simpson and Galileo officials say the former Senator never spoke directly to anyone at USA Today. In addition, they point out that the freelance agreement Simpson signed did not ask him if he had any ties to the issue.

However, USA Today officials said the freelance agreement merely sets the terms under which the newspaper can reprint the op-ed. “It’s not an ethical policy,” Stevens said.

The newspaper verbally asks op-ed writers if they have a financial stake in the issues they write about.

All sides acknowledged that lobbyists speaking on behalf of Simpson told the newspaper that he did not have a personal or financial stake in any of the companies involved.

USA Today has since changed its freelance agreement to ask whether writers have a financial interest in the issue they write about.

The flap exposes what could be yet another ethical issue in journalism at a time when the industry finds itself increasingly under fire for its credibility.

“It is an interesting lesson in how D.C. works,” said USA Today’s Stevens.

Simpson, for example, said he has been paid to sign several op-eds in the past few years. “I never knew where they went,” he said.

In terms of the USA Today piece, Simpson said he had little to do with writing, editing or placing the article. He he did not speak with Galileo’s lobbying firm, the public relations firm that drafted the op-ed or anyone at USA Today.

“We did absolutely nothing,” Simpson said.

Ghost writing and placing similar op-eds in newspapers is a thriving business in Washington, according to those involved in the largely behind-the-scenes industry.

“There are any number of firms who are engaged in the practice,” said Andy Schwartzman of the Media Access Project.

Tom Rosenstiel, a former Los Angeles Times reporter now with the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the burden falls on newspapers to ensure that readers are made aware of the financial interests of their writers.

“Alan Simpson can do whatever he wants, but the news organization that is publishing what he is offering has an absolute obligation to disclose all of his interests,” he said. “Who else is participating in the writing? Who is funding it?”

But many newspapers do not have a firm policy on such pieces.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, has a “flexible” policy on contributions from paid advocates, according to Tunku Varadarajan, the paper’s editorial features editor.

“If there is a stake — and the piece is still attractive enough to run — we take care that it is revealed either in the body of the piece or in the author ID at the end,” he said.

Linda Feldmann said that when she began overseeing the editorial page at the Christian Science Monitor she refused to publish ghost-written stories as a matter of “purity.”

“But the bottom line is to make the page more interesting,” she said. “My goal was purity, but as time went on I decided that I had to be a little more flexible. I really don’t like the idea of all this ghost-written stuff out there, but sometimes it’s interesting stuff.”

She added: “If I got something in from Alan Simpson, I would assume he didn’t write it.”