|Event 1: A New York Times-Style Op-Ed|
A Breaking News Story in the Washington Post
The Hackathletes were given two hours to write the first 750 words of a breaking news story in the Washington Post about a possible scandal involving Newt Gingrich. A "cheat sheet" of contrived facts and quotations was provided as background for this story.
The Story: Class War, a lefty weekly, has published an insubstantial story alleging financial improprieties on the part of Speaker Gingrich and his Reading for Dollars Foundation. The story appears to be as shaky as the recently discredited article in Insight magazine, which reported that President Clinton sold burial plots in Arlington National Cemetery for campaign donations.
But the Gingrich yarn may be true. The speaker is on a dinosaur dig in Zimbabwe, and his Capitol Hill aides deny the Class War story. But in Washington, a rumor denied and published becomes a fact. Or at least grist for a react story.
Your Job: You're the anchor on the national desk of the Washington Post, working feverishly with three reporters filing sloppily written "takes" from the field. You must write this breaking news story before the bulldog edition goes to press.
The Class War story is in front of you. Barely comprehensible "takes" from Zimbabwe, Capitol Hill, and Montana are streaming in from the two Post reporters and stringer assigned to the story. Burning a hole in your backside is the fact that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are preparing stories on the subject, too.
The trick of this particular piece of hackwork is to repeat the scurrilous and entertaining allegations published by Class War without really endorsing them, while at the same time leaving enough wriggle room for a follow-up Post story in case the allegations are true.
The Story As It Appeared in Class War
Newt's Kiddie-Book Scam?
Is Speaker Gingrich enriching his campaign and himself
through the Reading for Dollars Program?
By Pavia Page
Speaker Newt Gingrich's first lame education idea was tax credits for poor people who bought laptops. Hooted down by Democrats and Republicans alike, Gingrich uncorked a second education program in late 1995. It reiterated his view that the only values worth promoting are marketplace values: He established the Reading for Dollars Foundation, which pays underprivileged schoolchildren $2 for every book they read.
In theory, it's a great idea. Impoverished kids read and earn money. But questions unearthed by a Class War investigation ask: Where did Reading for Dollars' money come from? Where did the money go? Who determines what titles the schoolchildren read for their payout? And why won't the speaker answer questions about that big dinosaur fossil resting on the mantel of his Capitol Hill office?
Although Gingrich is supposedly the highest-tech politician this side of Vice President Al Gore, he could not be reached via e-mail or cellular phone in Zimbabwe, where he is currently participating in a paleontological dig. His aides categorically deny all the allegations leveled at him.
But according to documents obtained by Class War, financial irregularities abound at the Reading for Dollars Foundation. For example, the group's Form 990, the yearly financial filing that tax-exempt nonprofits like Reading for Dollars must make to the Internal Revenue Service--and keep on hand for public view--is not available.
"We sent the IRS that form last year and lost all of our records in an office fire," said Reading for Dollars Treasurer Florence Floom. Floom also served as treasurer in Speaker Gingrich's successful re-election campaign in 1996. The IRS says that it never received the foundation's Form 990.
Also, the foundation board is made up exclusively of fat-cat Republican donors, who, according to Federal Election Commission filings, have given hard and soft money to Gingrich campaigns and the Republican National Committee. In fact, six members of Gingrich's re-election committee also belong to the Reading for Dollars board (see sidebar). Against this backdrop of interlocking directorships and financial shenanigans brews another potential scandal: Have tax-exempt donations been funneled to political campaigns and into the pockets of individuals?
One disgruntled former Reading for Dollars staffer, who requested anonymity, says he has no doubt where the foundation's money came from and were it went.
"It was all Republican money, and we lived high on the hog off it," said the former staffer. "And so did Newt. Caviar and champagne at Friday lunches. First-class air fare. Huge expense accounts. I never saw any money change hands, but it was common knowledge that Newt's campaign-finance guys were always at the foundation's headquarters, using the phone, and were very buddy-buddy with our comptroller."
In a potential conflict of interest, the foundation employs as its financial auditor the same individual who did the numbers for the 1996 Gingrich campaign. Also, both the foundation and the 1996 Gingrich re-election campaign maintain checking accounts at Washington's Riggs Bank.
According to sources within the foundation, the group collected $1.2 million this year and has disbursed a paltry $110,000 to kids for reading books. Where did the rest of the money go? The speaker's people aren't saying.
"Gingrich doesn't want this information coming out," the disgruntled source said. He adds that there are reasons to speculate that the money was laundered into various Republican campaigns or spent by Gingrich himself.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, a longtime critic of Gingrich and a Democrat, said a congressional investigation of the foundation and Gingrich might be warranted.
"I haven't seen any of the evidence, but I think that any exploitation of children for political gain should be stopped in its tracks," Conyers said.
A source on Capitol Hill said that the emerging scandal parallels Gingrich's ethical lapse in 1994, when he signed a $4.5-million contract to write a book for a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. At the time, Congress was considering telecommunications legislation that could have had a billion-dollar impact on Murdoch. Earlier this year, Gingrich was fined $300,000 by the House ethics committee for furnishing "inaccurate" information to ethics investigators.
Other irregularities uncovered by the Class War investigation: According to documents obtained by Class War, the schoolchildren recruited by Reading for Dollars program were encouraged to read books from the book list Gingrich composed for legislators last year. The titles include Alvin and Heidi Toffler's Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave, Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive, Mary E. Boone's Leadership and the Computer, and Arleaha and Morris Schechtman's Working Without a Net.
"How are kids supposed to read grown-up books like that?" said Rep. Conyers. "This is a blatant attempt to propagandize children."
And according to confidential plans obtained by Class War, the foundation plans to pay the children a bonus of $20 for every Gingrich-authored book that they read. The Gingrich titles include 1945: A Novel; The Contract With America; To Renew America; The Democracy Reader: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times; Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future; and Quotations From Speaker Newt: The Little Red, White and Blue Book of the Republican Revolution.
Obviously a run on Gingrich's books by schoolchildren would increase his royalties. But then there's the mysterious matter of the dinosaur bone. Gingrich made news last August when he discovered a dinosaur bone during a dig in Montana. But did he find the bone--or buy it? The source inside the foundations says (Story continues on page 17) ...
Take Filed by the Washington Post Zimbabwe Correspondent
Found Gingrich on the dinosaur dig. Working shirtless, drinking beer. He's fat again. And either a little tipsy or giddy about digging for dino bones. Accused Democrats of lying. Says well-meaning underling probably cooked up the $20-per-Gingrich-book idea.
Very jocular. Begs off Form 990 question. Says he will answer all questions when he returns to D.C. and sorts out the issues. "Right now, sir, I'm just looking for bone!" Serves on lots of boards and doesn't pretend to know everything about them. Says, of course his political friends are on foundation board. Who else would help? His enemies? Laughs and spills beer.
Suggests that Rep. Conyers attempt anatomical impossibility.
Waves off additional questions about money and conflict of interest. "I have a dinosaur to find!" Gingrich aide appears with written statement. Gingrich scans and passes it over. It reads:
"I suspect if I were a liberal, [my work] would be a wonderful thing, an example of compassion, an example of innovation, an example of reaching out to kids. Instead, it becomes one more opportunity to focus only on the financing and to do so misleadingly."
Laughs until asked about Montana dino bones. Did he find the bone or buy it? Fumbles for another beer and makes small talk with friends. Turns and says, "It's against the law, I think, to buy dinosaur bones. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got scientific work to do." Waddles down the path. A burly security man stops onlookers from following.
Take Filed by the Washington Post Capitol Hill Correspondent
Class War right about the two book lists. And the overlap of directors. And the Riggs Bank and auditor. Can't confirm allegations of pilfered funds. Form 990 is missing. Can't find Class War's confidential source.
Reading for Dollars founded late 1995. Gingrich takes foundation-sponsored 12-city tour of country in 1996 promoting program. Also makes campaign stops in 10 of those cities. Treasurer Floom recruited from Sun Myung Moon's organization. Did Moon's taxes the year he was busted for income-tax evasion.
Reading for Dollars headquarters on 16th Street near Columbia Road. Near Moon's Unification Church. Beautiful Queen Anne-style mansion, restored to mint condition. Built by an heir to the International Harvester fortune in 1899. Gates locked at mansion today. Lights off. Nobody answering phone. Plymouth Barracuda with diplomatic plates inside compound. Several days' worth of newspapers piled up just inside gate.
Schoolchildren walking by say never heard of foundation.
"Mister, I'll read a comic book for a dollar if you've got one," says one kid.
Reached in Detroit, Conyers says Class War misquoted him. "I said that we should find out where the money went. I did not call for investigation. I said that an investigation could perhaps find out where the money went."
Meet Pavia Page, Class War author, in Dupont Circle office of Class War. Calls Gingrich a "pig."
"He's smart, but as we all know, pigs are smart. I suspect that when he dies they'll remove the valves from his heart and transplant them into a sick pig," Page says.
Early 30s, black leotard, excess mascara. Like something from the '60s. Says she quoted Conyers correctly and will give me a tape tomorrow. She's working on the Rev. Moon angle in a follow-up story for next week. Says dino bones important to Moon religion and that Moon is using the bones to co-opt Gingrich, get him to support the Unification Church.
"This story is going to be bigger than Watergate," she says. "Read it in Class War next week."
Moon specialist Charles Jenkins at American University doubts connection between Moon religion and bones. But he points out that in the late '80s Moon accepted a Zimbabwean as the reincarnation of his dead son.
Council on Foundations library has Reading for Dollars annual report from last year, but nothing from this supposedly scandalous year. Financials for last year, about which Class War is silent, seem legit, with 70 percent of budget going in payouts to kids. None of the three board members (there are nine) listed in report that I contact will talk: in Chicago, Gordon Duke, Bruns and Co. brokerage president; William McConnor, owner of McConnor Buick in Tampa; and Stacey Petersen, May Kay distributor in Philadelphia. FEC filings show they've all given to Republican candidates.
Visited Gingrich office. Took a peek at the dino bone on mantel before aides shooed me away (they're not talking either, deferring all questions to the speaker in Zimbabwe). Former congressman Bob Dornan, wandering the halls, came in shouting and laughing uproariously that the Iraqis must be taught a lesson.
Dino bone is 4 feet or so long. Rests in a display case. Looks like a cow femur. Couldn't read inscription on case.
Take Filed by the Washington Post Montana Stringer
Gingrich raised a good bit of money while out here. Stayed in $350-a-night lodge for two nights in Livingstone. Spent extravagantly at bar, buying Republican donors drinks. Purchased a Hollywood cowboy outfit at Duke's Western Wear and wore to a fund-raiser. Bought a Colt 45 pistol replica and broke it in at a local target range. Couldn't find the bull's-eye to save his ass. Will send scanned image of dressed up "Cowboy Newt" missing the targets, which was published in a local paper.
Newt gabbed at the dino dig with Peter Fonda, member of the real Hollywood community who lives here. Newt rented a Ford Explorer from Budget and put 750 miles on it in two days. Where did he go? Nobody knows because he mysteriously disappeared for the better part of a day.
Local sheriff, Bill Deal, says rumor has it that Gingrich's bone was planted by local Republicans for him to find so his lifelong ambition to find a dinosaur bone would be realized. Bone found on local farm. Deal says there are vague laws against collecting fossils on public lands, but most of Montana is public land, and "Montanans are by their very nature lawbreakers." Can't name the Republicans who are believed to have planted the bones, though. Then says all his comments are off the record. Threatens to arrest me if I publish his comments.
Paleontologist Howard Locey (University of Montana) says it was no big deal that Gingrich found a dino bone. You can't avoid fossils in Montana. "Kick over a rock and you'll find a fossil," he said, adding that the "Gingrich fossil was a pitiful thing." Says it was only a couple of inches long.
"I've seen kindergartners toss fossils like Gingrich's back into the pit rather than be humiliated at show-and-tell," he says. "It was no big-game trophy."
Academic community wants a ban on all vertebrate fossil collecting on federal land. Wants protections on fossils found on private land.
Rent-a-car dealer complains that Gingrich party left a pile of puke in Explorer and returned it with scrapes. Truck has been repaired.
County Republican Party President Velma Stewart says she knows nothing about the bones. Says she doesn't have the fund-raising info from Gingrich visit handy. Threatens to have me arrested for disturbing the peace. Says she hates reporters. Especially liberal Washington Post reporters. Especially Bob Woodward and "what's his name." Wants to know if Ben Bradlee looks like Jason Robards. And when they're going to film the sequel to All the President's Men.
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