Jason Felch statement, and a clarification on Occidental College

jason-felch-book-site.jpgTwo more things (for now) on the story about reporter Jason Felch and his coverage of Occidental College's controversy over the handling of sexual assault reports. First, Oxy spokesman James Tranquada asks me to make a note that Friday's LA Times editor's note, which disclosed Felch's firing, indicated the paper now believes that Felch's story was wrong about all 27 incidents allegedly mishandled by the college. My post on Friday suggested that only some were being skinned back by the Times; Tranquada says it's an important distinction at Oxy — all versus some — and I can't really disagree. So I'll fix my original post and say so here.

Felch, meanwhile, disputes a lot of what Occidental is saying. I reported last night on a web statement posted by Oxy that blasts Felch, and on Erik Wemple's coverage of Felch's position in a Washington Post blog. Now Felch has provided me his full statement responding to Occidental's web post. In it, he indicates there has been a role played in the controversy by his book partner and former colleague Ralph Frammolino, now a crisis PR adviser retained by Oxy. I had observed on the Frammolino connection in my first post last week.

Here is Felch's statement:

Occidental's recent statement contains a number of falsehoods.

Regarding the Sept. 18th story, my editors determined no correction was necessary. The story noted that some at Occidental were concerned that the settlement would have a chilling effect on sexual assault victims. I informed Gloria Allred, who represented the women, about the concern prior to publication and she declined to comment on it. The day after the article appeared, Allred contacted me to say her clients were free to discuss the alleged sexual assaults “in any campus proceeding and in any legal proceeding and/or in any court of law.” This did not address the question of whether they could criticize Occidental’s handling of their cases outside a judicial proceeding, which sources said the settlement agreement did not allow. My editors decided Allred’s statement was a clarification, not a correction, and we incorporated it into a story that was published Sept. 20th. That story said, "The settlement bars the women from publicly discussing the college's handling of their cases. The women's attorney, Gloria Allred, said in an email Thursday that it would not prevent them from participating in federal or campus judicial proceedings, as some faculty had feared."

Regarding the Dec 7th story, I began seeking information and comment from Occidental on Oct. 14th. Suspecting the 27 cases may not have been disclosed because they were reported anonymously, I wrote the college spokesman Jim Tranquada on Oct. 14th: “I’d like some details on Oxy’s sexual violence anonymous reporting form. When was the system first put in place? Who administers the system? What is the process for including reports submitted here into the Clery data? Has that process changed in recent years? In addition, please provide me with a copy of all data submitted through the form for the past five years, excluding the name of the accused. Finally, has this data been accurately reported in Clery Act reports in years past?”

On Oct 18, I received the following statement from Tranquada: "Given the two investigations currently underway by the Department of Education, we believe our students will be best served by the conclusions reached through these comprehensive, thorough, and public reviews. In the meantime, Occidental continues to move ahead with its efforts to improve its policies and procedures to ensure the College is a national leader in dealing with sexual misconduct.” I immediately followed up with another email: "Jim, my understanding is that none of the complaints filed through the college’s anonymous reporting form were being included in Clery reports. This oversight was discovered in the spring of 2013. So: How many reports have been made through the anonymous reporting page since the page was created in 2009 (the date of creation you provided in our conversation today)? Were all of those reports included in Occidental’s annual Clery reports in a timely way?” His reply: "Our statement will have to stand as is.”

I continued to press Tranquada during October and November, including the claim made in the federal Clery complaint that the Dean of Students’ office had received 34 reports of sexual assaults in 2012, while Occidental only reported 7 of them. Tranquada said he had not seem the federal complaint and could not comment beyond his earlier statement. He requested a copy of the confidential complaint and I declined. Instead, I described the story in detail and requested interviews with three administrators who would be named in the story. He declined to provide any of them, and they did not return calls to home and work over several weeks. When pressed repeatedly on and off the record about the discrepancy in Occidental's reported statistics, Tranquada conceded the college had made reporting errors, without specifying what they were. To reflect this admission, he agreed to be quoted saying, "Clery reporting is clearly an area where we need to improve.”

To date, Occidental has not disclosed how many sexual assault reports were made through an anonymous reporting system created in 2009, nor whether those reports were included in annual Clery Act disclosures. The college has also not contested the allegation in the Clery complaint, also cited in the Dec. 7 story, saying the college failed to report those cases. The matter remains under investigation by two federal agencies.

Neither Tranquada nor Occidental requested a correction of the Dec 7th story until early March, after they had hired a crisis PR team that included Ralph Frammolino, a former colleague with whom I had on-going business relationship stemming from a book published in 2011. Contrary to Occidental’s statement, Frammolino attempted to contact me repeatedly. Occidental said it was aware of Frammolino's conflict of interest and had hired him anyway. I informed both Occidental and Frammolino that I would not interact with him on the story. When I informed Frammolino of my decision, he inappropriately attempted to link my coverage of Occidental to financial matters involving our business relationship.

Finally, I never said, “I think you’re lying and I’m going to prove it.” That is a complete fabrication.

That last sentence speaks to an accusation made by Occidental that Felch used those words with Tranquada.

It feels as if there is a lot left to come out on this situation. As always, if anyone has information to share I'm listening.

A word about this unfolding story before it gets more personal and, possibly, involves more LA media people who I know personally or by reputation. I don't think that I have met Felch and have only briefly met Tranquada, but I have written about both of their books. Felch co-authored with Frammolino a 2011 book on the Getty Museum. I have also covered some of his stories through the years. Tranquada wrote a 2012 book on the ukulele and Hawaiian music which I admired. Tranquada is a former LA journalist and a former UCLA media relations official. I've known both Frammolino and his employer, Glenn Bunting, for more than 25 years as former colleagues at the Los Angeles Times. If there were a hypothetical Facebook group formed of people acquainted with one or more of these longtime LA media people, the mutual friends counter on my profile would probably top a couple hundred. Add in the LA Observed readers who hold some kind of personal fondness for Occidental College, or who work at the Times, or did, and there's nothing about this story that's comfortable. That's just the way things go sometimes.

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