ABC Acknowledges Denials Yet Ross Stands By Hastert Bribery Probe Claim, But...
Meanwhile, on FNC Morton Kondracke recommended that “ABC should remember Dan Rather and the Bush National Guard case where they didn't do the right thing and say, you know, we can't prove the story and just get rid of it.” And Jeff Birnbaum revealed that “ABC did not call the Speaker until an hour before the broadcast” and “that ABC did not check for an official response from the Justice Department, which seems sort of basic here.” (Transcripts, and video of the Wednesday Ross story, follow)
Ross tried to bolster his allegation by telling viewers that “long before our story, public interest groups had asked the Department of Justice to investigate Hastert and other members of Congress, who also intervened after contributions from Abramoff." He then cited one “public interest group,” the left-wing Democracy 21.The ABCNews.com Web page for Brian Ross has the text of the DOJ denials as well as more comments from him and his producers in their “The Blotter” blog. The DrudgeReport has the text of a letter from Hastert’s lawyers to ABC News, and the Speaker's office has also posted it:
At 7:25 p.m., the Statement of the Department of Justice confirmed:
“Speaker Hastert is not under investigation by the Justice Department.”
At 10:21 p.m., you wrote:
“Whether they like it or not, members of Congress, including Hastert, are under investigation,” one federal official said tonight.”
This statement is false, and your republication of it after actual knowledge of its falsity constitutes libel and defamation. ABC News’ continued publication of this false information, after having actual knowledge of its falsity, evidences a specific and malicious intent to injure and damage Speaker Hastert’s reputation by continued repetition of a known falsehood.
We will take any and all actions necessary to rectify the harm ABC has caused and to hold those at ABC responsible for their conduct.
Please advise regarding who will accept service of process to remedy this intentional falsehood.
During the panel segment on Thursday’s Special Report with Brit Hume, Roll Call Executive Editor Morton Kondracke advised:
"ABC should remember Dan Rather and the Bush National Guard case where they didn't do the right thing and say, you know, we can't prove the story and just get rid of it. What ABC is doing is slowly backtracking and trying to clean its skirts and it's not successful. I mean it ought to just say, we accept that the Justice Department has said that the Speaker's not under investigation, and until he is, it's over."Jeff Birnbaum, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and Fortune and now a business columnist for the Washington Post, disclosed:
"There were some red flags here that ABC didn't see and should have. I'm told by the Speaker's office that ABC did not call until, call the Speaker until an hour before the broadcast. And I'm also told that ABC did not check for an official response from the Justice Department, which seems sort of basic here, and that they might have caused -- if they had a little patience which is a great virtue in journalism, they might have saved themselves a lot of problems today."
Naturally, ABC’s follow-up story got lower play than the original hype which led Wednesday night. The Thursday night report came about nine minutes into the newscasts, after stories on the Enron verdict and the immigration bill battle on Capitol Hill.
The MRC’s Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video for the May 25 World News Tonight report:
Anchor Elizabeth Vargas: "There has been a storm of reaction to our report last night about the expanding investigation of convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and members of Congress. We reported last night that sources told us House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois was among those whose dealings with Abramoff the FBI has been looking into. We have a new, we have new details to report tonight, and we are joined now by our chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, with more. Brian?"
Brian Ross, at the anchor desk: "Elizabeth, the Department of Justice issued two separate denials of our report, the Speaker demanded a retraction, and his colleagues suggested the FBI was out to get him with a bogus story.”
Ross began his taped piece: “As he gaveled the House to order this morning, Hastert was praised, and ABC News was denounced by his Republican colleagues."
Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE), on the House floor: "This noncredible journalism, I think, degrades freedom of speech and the reputation of journalists."
Ross: "On WGN Radio in Chicago, Hastert said the story was a leak planted by the FBI to intimidate him."
Audio of Dennis Hastert, House Speaker, on the radio: "It's just not true. You know, the Justice Department said there is no investigation, and, you know, this is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people. And we're just not going to be intimidated on it."
Ross: "As for the facts of our story itself, here is what our sources have confirmed today: That the FBI interrogation of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff included specific and repeated questions about his relationship with Speaker Hastert, along with other members of Congress. That although Hastert is not a formal target, the FBI has been looking into a letter Hastert and others sent to the Secretary of the Interior urging her to block an Indian casino that would have competed with casinos represented by Abramoff. That a few days before the letter was sent, Abramoff hosted a fund-raiser for Hastert at a restaurant he owned. The Speaker today said the letter repeated longheld views about certain Indian casino rules."
Hastert amidst group of reporters: "So it was a letter saying this precedent shouldn't be set."
Unidentified female reporter: "And the fact that it was written after you had a fund-raiser at Jack Abramoff's restaurant?"
Hastert: "That's a coincidence."
Ross: "But long before our story, public interest groups had asked the Department of Justice to investigate Hastert and other members of Congress, who also intervened after contributions from Abramoff."
Fred Wertheimer, Democracy 21: "That's very unusual activity, and we believe it needed to be and needs to be investigated."
Ross concluded, back at the anchor desk: "As we reported last night, the investigation is still in its early stages, and our sources say it could well turn out that Hastert did nothing unlawful. But federal law enforcement sources say the FBI in its next step will soon seek documents and e-mails from a number of members of Congress who have been linked in the investigation to Abramoff."
"I'm Elizabeth Vargas. Tonight, Justice Department sources tell us the investigation involving a convicted lobbyist and allegations of bribery leads to the highest level of Congress. An ABC News exclusive."
She opened the newscast:
“Good evening. We begin with a major development in a Washington bribery scandal. Tonight, sources tell ABC News the case involving convicted lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, has led FBI investigators to some of the most powerful members of Congress, namely the man, second in line for the presidency, after the Vice President. This is a story with potentially major political implications and our chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, joins us with his exclusive report. Brian.”
Ross, at the anchor desk: “Elizabeth, federal officials tell us the congressional bribery investigation now includes the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, based on information from the convicted lobbyists who are cooperating with the government."
Ross began his taped report, over video of Hastert at the Speaker's podium with "Bribery Investigation" on screen: "Justice Department officials describe the 64-year-old Illinois Republican as very much in the mix of the corruption investigation. Part of the investigation is said to involve a letter Hastert wrote three years ago, urging the Secretary of the Interior, to block a casino on an Indian reservation that would have competed wit the other tribes. The other tribes were represented by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who reportedly has provided details of his dealings with Hastert as part of his plea agreement with the government. The letter was written shortly after a fund-raiser for Hastert at a restaurant owned by Abramoff. Abramoff and his clients contributed more than $26,000 at the time. The day Abramoff was indicted, Hastert denied any unlawful connection and said he would donate to charity any campaign contributions he had received from Abramoff or his clients. This week, following the FBI raid on the office of another Congressman under investigation, Democrat William Jefferson of Louisiana, Hastert was outspoken in his criticism of the FBI."Dennis Hastert, House Speaker: "We are not trying to protect any individual, but we want to protect the privacy of the House as far as the Constitution."
Ross, back live at the anchor desk: "A spokesman for Hastert said the speaker was unaware he was the subject of any FBI investigation and that there had been no requests or subpoenas for documents. The spokesman said Hastert had a long history of opposing certain types of Indian casinos. And, Elizabeth, this is an investigation clearly at the very beginning. The allegations could well prove unfounded, but what's clear from all this is that the FBI intend to take this case wherever it goes."
Vargas then turned to Stephanopoulos:
"All right, Brian Ross. ABC's Chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos joins us now. And, George, the political implications are huge if, in fact, Speaker Hastert is now a target of this FBI investigation."George Stephanopoulos, from DC: "Potentially seismic, Elizabeth. And it really is going to depend on the facts and whether prosecutors can demonstrate a quid pro quo, that Hastert took that official action in return for the campaign contribution. As Brian said, he has denied that, his spokesmen have denied that in the past, but if they can prove that, if they can get an indictment, this would be a political earthquake."
Vargas: "But you, that's a big if. This is a kind of charge that is exceedingly difficult to prove."
Stephanopoulos: "Exactly right, and it's been, you know, frankly, common practice in Washington. There are 33 members of Congress who wrote letters to the Interior Secretary and got campaign contributions from Jack Abramoff. So if, if Hastert is facing that kind of scrutiny, they may, too. A lot of heads could roll."
Vargas: "And as we said at the beginning, facing at this point only scrutiny. All right, George Stephanopoulos, thanks so much."