◼ An apology - by JUDY HODGSON
September 1, 2005
This is a long overdue apology to our readers.
As you will learn in this week's cover story, this newspaper and every other newspaper in the county we have researched so far have been victims of a letter-writing hoax. We printed a letter in June from a reader who had written before, whose letters had appeared in other newspapers, without calling to verify the letter's authenticity.
It was a fake name, one he used to influence public opinion in the best-read section of any paper -- the letters to the editor. This deception, we learned this past week, has been ongoing for months, much to our embarrassment, and we sincerely apologize.
The letter writer isn't just an ordinary reader. He is a political activist, and a volunteer and sometimes paid consultant for many liberal causes. He worked on the campaign to elect Jill Geist as county supervisor, Paul Gallegos' initial run for district attorney and Chris Kerrigan's bid for re-election to the Eureka City Council. He was a key player in the successful fight against Gallegos' recall attempt. And he has been an outspoken critic of Pacific Lumber Co. and Debi August, a Fortuna City Council member indicted by the grand jury for conflict of interest. (August's case was later dismissed.)
During our investigation, we learned he wrote frequently under several names, including, occasionally, his own -- Richard Salzman.
By perpetrating this hoax, Salzman betrayed the public, especially the people who have supported his causes. Citizens on the other side of these important issues will long remember his deception. There were many thoughtful, passionate, sincere letter writers during the same period of time who will now have their very existence called into question because of Salzman's deception.
Some readers may ask if our headline, "Web of lies," is too harsh. I don't think so. To write letters under an assumed name is a lie in itself. Then, when we confronted him with the evidence of his deceit last Friday, he initially denied it. It was only after a face-to-face confrontation Monday in our office, and a few more hours of private reflection, that he admitted his deception.
Salzman now claims he has some right to use a "pen name." Maybe in writing fiction, but not in the news business. Political careers and important causes are advanced or maimed based on how the news unfolds, and cynical attempts to twist the contents of newspapers to one's own end should be roundly condemned, whether the twister is Salzman or Karl Rove. Geist has long distanced herself from Salzman; Gallegos and Kerrigan should do the same.
We spent staff time this past week reviewing all letters published in the Journal in the last two and a half years. In addition to those originated by Salzman, we have published a few others whose authenticity we cannot yet verify, meaning we cannot find the authors in any of our databases nor can we contact them by phone or e-mail. Our promise to readers is to do our best to screen letters in the future, and to investigate any and all attempts to falsely and covertly manipulate public opinion.
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We also learned this past week of what we hope will be the penultimate chapter in the pepper spray saga. The judge in the case, which found that Humboldt County and the city of Eureka police officers used excessive force in dealing with anti-logging demonstrators in 1997, ruled that the plaintiffs are entitled to recover legal fees. (The ultimate chapter will be when the attorneys actually get paid.)
As we have editorialized many times these past eight years, the county supervisors and the Eureka City Council should have condemned the actions of their officers -- under orders of then-Sheriff Dennis Lewis, who bears ultimate responsibility -- and they should have offered to settle with the victims. Fighting this case every step of the way has been a failure to accept responsibility all along the chain of command and has been extremely costly to taxpayers. The tab so far is in the millions.
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For at least the last 10 months, controversial political figure Richard Salzman has authored numerous letters to local newspapers under fake names, the Journal has learned. The letters, which were signed "R. Trent Williams" and "Dick Wyatt," were published in the Journal and the Eureka Reporter, the only two local newspapers with extensive online archives. It is believed that they also appeared in other publications.
Nearly every hot political topic to hit Humboldt County in the past year is addressed in the letters -- from the aftermath of the failed recall attempt on District Attorney Paul Gallegos (during which Salzman was the DA's campaign chairman) to the battle over the new county general plan, Eureka City Councilman Chris Kerrigan's reelection, the threatened boycott of Arcata and the backlash against Salzman himself.
Acting on a complaint from Fortuna resident Rhonda Meehan (see sidebar), the Journal contacted Salzman Friday afternoon to ask if he had, in fact, written letters to the editor using phony names. He said that he had not.
"The only letters I write are the ones you see from me," he said. He added that he had never heard of "R. Trent Williams," but that Fortuna resident Dick Wyatt was a political colleague.
In a follow-up telephone conversation that evening, Salzman at first sought to dismiss Meehan's claims, saying that Meehan was "clearly a hard-core Dikeman supporter." (Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman has announced that he will challenge Gallegos for the post of district attorney next year).
However, on Monday, after being presented with hard evidence collected by the Journal that supported Meehan's allegations, Salzman recanted and issued a partial confession.
In a statement delivered to the Journal Monday afternoon, Salzman confessed that he had submitted letters to the editor under a "pen name."
"The use of pen names has been a common practice throughout history," Salzman wrote. "It is important to know I stand behind the substance of everything contained in all the letters I submitted."
Salzman's change of story came after he met with the Journal in our offices Monday morning to review the information supporting Meehan's case that this newspaper collected Friday afternoon and over the weekend.
After reading Meehan's complaint, the Journal looked closely at identifying information in e-mails from Salzman stored on our computers, then at similar information in the single e-mail from "R. Trent Williams" that we retained. We also looked at the e-mail purportedly sent by "Dick Wyatt" that Meehan referenced, which we received but did not publish.
A careful read of the e-mail "headers" -- addressing information at the top of the message that most e-mail programs hide -- showed that both the "Williams" and the "Wyatt" e-mails contained the IP address of the computer that sent them (see sidebar). These addresses matched addresses used by Salzman in the same period.
The "Williams" e-mail (sent May 23, 2005) and the "Wyatt" e-mail (July 9, 2005) both originated from a computer using the IP address 184.108.40.206. All the e-mails that we had received from Salzman between March 3, 2005, and July 5, 2005, were from a computer using the same address. (The first e-mail we received from Salzman after the "Wyatt" e-mail was dated early August, by which time his IP lease of that address had apparently expired.)
Over the weekend, the Arcata Eye provided this newspaper with copies of e-mails it had received from "Williams" -- one dated Dec. 16, 2004, and one dated Aug. 4, 2005. The Journal compared the IP address information contained in the Eye e-mails to the same information in e-mails known to be sent by Salzman at those times. In both cases, the IP addresses matched. In mid-December, both Salzman and "Williams" were using IP address 220.127.116.11; in early August, both were using 18.104.22.168. The combination of these three dates, during which Salzman and "Williams" were using the same IP address, was conclusive.
In addition, the Journal discovered that Salzman didn't employ much creativity in devising what appears to be his principal pseudonym.
Though the Williams letters were signed "R. Trent Williams," e-mails sent from "Williams'" e-mail address appeared in inboxes as coming from "Rick William." Salzman's full name is Richard William Salzman.
Reached Tuesday morning, Salzman declined to comment on the matter any further. He said that he would not provide a list of false names he has used.
In recent months, the Journal has received two letters from a person claiming to be a Eureka resident named "R. Johnson," one of which was published in July (the other, sent a month earlier, was published in the McKinleyville Press). Upon further examination, the letters have proven to be false.
Even though the "R. Johnson" letters were sent to the Journal electronically, they cannot be definitively tied to Salzman or any other person as they contain no IP address information. However, they both take stances similar to ones Salzman has taken in the past: One thanks former Assistant District Attorney Tim Stoen for his service to the county, the other excoriates the Humboldt Taxpayer's League and auto dealer Harvey Harper.
The "R. Johnson" letters give the address of a Eureka home that turns out to belong to 93-year-old Ruth Johnson. On Monday afternoon, the Journal reached Ruth Johnson's caregiver, who said that there was no way that she could have written the letters.
"She can't even sign her own name," the caregiver replied.
Meehan, who is the sister of Fortuna City Councilmember Debi August -- a vocal Gallegos opponent and former target of a lawsuit prosecuted by the DA's office -- said Tuesday that she sent her fax to local newspapers after the real Dick Wyatt, a Fortuna resident, apologized to August for the content of the Salzman letter that appeared under his name.
According to Meehan, Wyatt said that Salzman had asked to write a letter to the editor using his name. He later regretted that it had made reference to August's "mendacious behavior," Meehan said. (Wyatt could not be reached for this story. August declined to comment.)
Meehan said that she just took a guess about the "R. Trent Williams" letters.
"That one -- I don't know," she said. "Both letters just sounded so much alike that I threw that one in there." l
-- Staff writer Helen Sanderson contributed to this report.
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Rhonda Meehan's letter
Will the real R. Trent Williams, Dick Wyatt and all the other Debi August and Palco bashers please stand up?
Oh, just as I thought! Could that be you, Richard Salzman?
The DA's chief financial guru must be getting really desperate. I have factual information that Richard Salzman, Paul Gallegos' fundraiser, better known as "Friends of Gallegos" has been writing letters to the editor (signing someone else's name) in support of Paul Gallegos and Tim Stoen and bashing Debi August and Pacific Lumber.
It's pretty sad when someone like Richard Salzman doesn't have the guts to sign his own name to his own letters, but instead puts innocent people in the position of being sued for libel. If you have to write a letter to the editor and then sign someone else's name to it (with permission or not) in order to try to convince the public that there are people out there that believe the DA's office was right in doing what it did, you have a serious problem.
Each of the above letter-writers needs to be contacted and asked if they in fact wrote those letters. And why didn't the Times-Standard and other newspapers verify the authors of those letters?
Rhonda Meehan, Fortuna
"R. Trent Williams"
printed by the Journal
Hiding behind lawyers
Nov. 4, 2004
So it looks like Mr. Salzman was right all along. I don't expect the North Coast Journal will be running any apologies for its editorial that criticized him for the (private) e-mails he sent out which warned against exactly the type of tactics that were ultimately employed by Rex Bohn's supporters. Of course, since they hide behind a Sacramento lawyer, we will never know each of the names of the people who funded the last minute attack ads against Councilman Chris Kerrigan, but it is rumored that at least one of the funders owns a local paper and wants to bring big box stores to Eureka. It is more than a little bit absurd for this secret group to be blaming Chris for the county's economic ills. First of all, Chris was in the minority on votes like the retail ordinance, so the policy he supported didn't prevail. Furthermore, if it had prevailed it would have only served to protect small businesses that the attack ads claim to be concerned about losing. The final irony is that their ad featured Moon's Play and Learn, which did not go out of business but rather expanded to a larger location in the revitalized downtown that Chris has worked so hard to support.
R. Trent Williams, Eureka
Feb. 24, 2005
Mike Harvey is the spokesman for HELP, which is funded by Rob Arkley. Arkley threatened a campaign to smear Salzman's name in the press and his lapdog, Mike Harvey, has started to do so. So Salzman is responsible for the destruction of the fishing industry? Wow.
R. Trent Williams, Eureka
On Gallegos' critics
March 24, 2005
Rose Welsh, who produced Jill Geist's ad campaign and is infamous for her conspiracy theories and for co-hosting a radio show with fellow nut-case Stephen Lewis, is now preaching about how the DA should be working harder ("Mailbox," March 17). Pay no mind to the fact that Paul has won every case he has tried since taking office. That would be seven more cases that [former DA] Terry [Farmer] tried in the last 10 years combined.
Let's not forget that during the recall, Rose was one of the people running around to the media waving e-mails stolen from the DA's office during the whole Flanigan scandal. EPD investigations were inconclusive and no charges were ever brought, but it still leaves a bad odor on the woman. At the end of the day, as with the article in general ("One year later," March 3), what we learn is that Paul's critics are still critical of him. Sixty-one percent of the voters chose to keep him in office.
His critics should give it a rest.
R. Trent Williams, Eureka
June 2, 2005
I keep hearing how Arcata's political positions hurt local businesses and that city's economy. That's interesting spin, as the commercial vacancy rate is at a 20-year low, new commercial buildings on previously empty lots have been immediately rented and property values in Arcata are about $100,000 greater than in Humboldt County in general. On top of all that, sales taxes collected are up 12.4 percent over last year, which is 50 percent higher than the increase in Eureka. The facts simply don't prove the critics out.
Arcata's long history of progressive values and liberal politics seems, in fact, to be good for business. For every right-wing Fortuna resident who writes a letter saying they now won't be shopping in Arcata (as if they ever did) there are 10 people outside the Arcata city limits who enjoy going into that town to do their shopping.
Local businesses in Arcata would be well advised to stick to business and leave politics to the elected officials. If they think that they are going to be punished by a misguided few for the actions of their city government, for which they are not responsible, wait until they feel the economic effects of taking the political position of opposing the will of the voters and their elected representatives. I'm sure they will find that most Arcata shoppers like Arcata's politics and don't appreciate the strong-arm tactics the Arcata Chamber of Commerce is currently demonstrating.
R. Trent Williams, Eureka