By Pat Loeb
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Philadelphia Daily News reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2009 series on police corruption is in the uncomfortable position of challenging the credibility of one of their own sources.
The source — a woman identified in the series as Naomi, who alleges that a police officer sexually assaulted her — reportedly told FBI agents that investigative journalists Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker paid her bills and encouraged her to lie to make the story better.
The reporters vehemently deny the woman’s account (Laker gives a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal in the podcast below), but it has put them in a situation not unlike that of the people they often write about: accused in print of unethical behavior.
To make the sting of the accusations worse, they were published in the Daily News sister paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, which obtained so-called 302 reports of FBI interviews with Naomi.
“It is just a kick in the heart to know that anyone would print this and not tell the full story,” says Laker.
“It’s shaken my faith in our institution,” says Ruderman.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey says the reporters are trying to have it both ways.
“A person is either credible or not credible. You believe them or you don’t. You can’t believe them when they say this but then when they say something about you, all of a sudden, it’s not accurate,” he says.
Laker and Ruderman say the difference is there was corroborating evidence of Naomi’s accusations against the police officer and that no one, even in the Inquirer account, denies that he sexually assaulted her.
Naomi is one of three women who alleged in the Daily News series “Tainted Justice,” that Officer Thomas Tolstoy molested them while he was on duty. The series also reported that Tolstoy and other officers had looted bodegas and fabricated evidence on search warrants.
The Pulitzer Board cited Laker and Ruderman “for their resourceful reporting that exposed a rogue police narcotics squad, resulting in an FBI probe and the review of hundreds of criminal cases tainted by the scandal.”
Yet no charges, to date, have been brought. The Inquirer story, published Friday, was an exploration of why Tolstoy was not dismissed. It implied the main reason was that Laker and Ruderman had damaged the case with their reporting and cited Naomi’s account in the FBI 302’s that the reporters offered her financial help and suggested she exaggerate some of her experience.
“This is my credibility and my reputation,” said a distraught Laker, who learned of the story after being released from the hospital, Friday, following heart surgery. “I’ve been doing this since 1979 and I’ve never, ever told anyone to lie, I’ve never given them gifts or money in exchange for a story, I’ve never done anything unethical.”
She noted that telling someone to lie to the FBI is a crime, obstruction of justice, and she would have been charged with it if the FBI believed Naomi. She says she provided the Inquirer with transcripts of interviews and notes that corroborated the assertions in “Tainted Justice,” and told the Inquirer that the real problem with the case was a sloppy internal affairs investigation, but that the Inquirer chose not to use that information.
Inquirer editor Bill Marimow declined comment. The publisher of both papers, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, also declined to be interviewed. He issued a statement, Friday, saying, “We believe that the Daily News’ Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the police abuses reflects solid reporting by excellent journalists. Both the Daily News’ original ‘Tainted Justice’ series and today’s Inquirer article demonstrate our organization’s commitment to a critical function of newspapers — bringing transparency to the community on issues of significant importance to our readers.”
Commissioner Ramsey says he would like to get Tolstoy off the street but that Naomi’s claims about Ruderman and Laker, and questions about her credibility, do create an obstacle.
“It’s not a question of whether misconduct occurred. I think we have an investigation that does demonstrate that,” he tells KYW Newsradio, “but this could very well be exploited by defense counsel when it comes to creating some doubt in the mind of an arbitrator.”
It also bolsters Tolstoy’s main defender and critic of the series, FOP president John McNesby.
“I hope the Pulitzer Prize board has the integrity to pull that award,” he said in an interview.
The Board, currently without an administrator, declined comment.
The series is also the basis of a book Laker and Ruderman published this year and a planned TV series starring Sarah Jessica Parker.
But both women say their main concern is their credibility as reporters.
“If you read the article,” says Ruderman, “people come way from it feeling like we’re guilty of something. And I said to Bill Marimow, ‘I don’t understand how you could put allegations in the paper that aren’t true.’ Journalism is a powerful thing and it shouldn’t be wielded lightly.”
As for the allegations about police that she and Laker put in the paper, she says, “I stand by everything we’ve written.”
Hear the entire interview with Barbara Laker in this CBS Philly podcast: