WASHINGTON – The media gatekeepers who decide who gets security clearance to cover Congress still haven’t made a final decision on WorldNetDaily.com, Inc.’s application – three-and-a-half months after the popular newssite appealed their denial of press credentials, and nearly 18 months after it first applied for them.
But in the meantime, in a secret meeting Thursday, the gatekeepers – known collectively as the Standing Committee of Correspondents for the Senate Press Gallery – revoked the temporary “day-pass” privileges for WND’s Washington correspondent.
WND’s legal team was not notified of the special meeting, and no hearing preceded it. There wasn’t even a vote taken, the committee’s chairman acknowledged in a phone interview Monday night.
“There was no vote, (but) had there been a vote, it would have been 5-0, I’m sure,” said Standing Committee Chairman William L. Roberts III.
“There was no dissent,” he added, “so it wasn’t a unilateral thing.”
Committee counsel N. Frank Wiggins says Roberts and the other members of the five-member panel made the Draconian move of effectively banning WorldNetDaily from covering Congress to punish WND Washington bureau chief Paul Sperry for making “factually inaccurate” statements at the appeals hearing.
Wiggins told Sperry that he had voiced concern over the move.
“I asked Bill (Roberts) specifically if it would have the effect of precluding you from covering Congress, because I know that’s part of what you do. That’s part of your job,” Wiggins said in an Aug. 2 phone conversation. “And it seems to me if the committee’s
going to have that profound an effect on your job, they’ve got to think about it a little differently.”
But Wiggins says Roberts assured him that revoking the temporary passes wouldn’t have a deleterious effect on WND’s ability to cover Congress.
“Bill said, ‘Nah, that’s crazy. There are lots of ways to do it,’” said Wiggins, an attorney with Washington-based Venable LLP.
Asked if there was any precedent for banning a reporter based on a misunderstanding at a hearing, Wiggins confessed: “I don’t think so.”
WND counsel Richard D. Ackerman argued the committee’s decision is a violation of due process – and “an absolute abuse of discretion.”
“Mr. Sperry has never been given any formal opportunity to address his individual rights through any hearing whatsoever,” said Ackerman, litigation counsel for Escondido, Calif.-based United States Justice Foundation. “He was not on notice of any proceedings against him individually.”
In an Aug. 5 letter to Wiggins, Ackerman asserted: “At no time did the committee indicate that there was an adjudication being had on anything relating to Mr.
Sperry individually. I think that his rights need to be immediately addressed in a constitutional, fair and unbiased way.”
Accusing Sperry of misleading the committee is the latest in a long list of objections used to deny WND unfettered access to Congress.
First, WND was told it’s too novel a medium, being 100 percent online and not having a printed publication (although the newssite publishes a popular monthly magazine, Whistleblower). Concerns then shifted to its former association with the nonprofit Western Journalism Center, from which it was spun off three years ago. (WND, with more than 2.5 million readers, is a for-profit company incorporated in Delaware.) Then came Clintonesque charges that WND takes money from Richard Mellon Scaife (committee investigators confused WND with another website) and is somehow tied to Judicial Watch Inc. (it’s not, although its chairman Larry Klayman has penned columns for the site). In the end, the committee settled on an alleged shortage of “original content” on the newssite as a main basis for denying WND accreditation.
After Ackerman and WND founder and editor Joseph Farah knocked down all the objections at WND’s April 15 appeals hearing, including exposing an apparent
political bias against WND, the committee turned to Sperry, who volunteered during the hearing that he had used his old press pass. He was an accredited member of the Senate Press Gallery as a reporter for Investor’s Business Daily, where he had worked for 12
years before joining WND in February 2000.
But Sperry mistakenly assumed he’d used his old pass during the long application process, which was plagued by false starts and delays. Senate Press Gallery deputy superintendent Stephen J. “Joe” Keenan, a federal employee, presented WND’s application to the committee and corresponded with WND during the deliberations.
In an accusatory May 15 letter to Sperry, Roberts demanded he explain “inconsistencies” in his “testimony” (even though no witnesses were sworn in and no one was under oath at the hearing).
Counsel advised Sperry not to respond to the letter, since it was outside the scope of the case, which involved accrediting WND the news organization, not any individuals, per se.
Threatened with denial of permanent credentials, Sperry was permitted by counsel to explain in a July 29 letter to the committee that he simply confused dates and did not intentionally mislead the committee.
He said he had used his cover letter to WND’s application – erroneously dated Feb. 8, 2000 – as a reference point. The application process in fact started in 2001.
Wiggins says committee members – Roberts of Bloomberg Business News, Donna M. Smith of Reuters, Scott Shepard of Cox Newspapers, Jack Torry of the Columbus
Dispatch and James Kuhnhenn of Knight Ridder – did not seriously entertain the explanation, because it came too late. They then moved to disqualify Sperry from covering Congress on a case-by-case (“day pass”) basis as well.
Though he says he can see how the action “may seem unfair,” Wiggins said the committee members felt they gave Sperry a “shot” to explain his misstatements, and that he didn’t take them up on it.
“My guess is the committee said, ‘Darn it, we’ve given this guy all the process that he’s due and we’ve got to just close these proceedings down at some point and not permit perpetual reopening of the record,’” Wiggins said.
But Sperry had drafted a defense to Robert’s May 15 charges on May 20.
“When Paul Sperry received Roberts’ letter accusing him of lying to the committee, he was champing at the bit to defend himself. On May 20, Paul drafted a response letter clearly explaining the obviously unintentional error he had made during the hearing,”
said WND managing editor David Kupelian. “I read it. It was great.”
“However, WND’s legal team had been expecting a long-overdue decision from the committee after WND’s April 15 hearing,” he added. “Instead, Paul received this angry letter chewing him out for some confusion on dates that he had volunteered during the hearing.
“The legal minds here considered Roberts’ letter to be grossly out of line, and urged Sperry not to respond at the time,” Kupelian continued. “And so he didn’t.”
Following the April hearing, the committee vowed to render a verdict within two weeks. WND is still waiting for formal word.
Wiggins told Ackerman that the committee met June 18 and was “prepared to provisionally recognize WorldNetDaily as an eligible organization on condition of continuing separation and independence between WorldNetDaily and the Western Journalism Center.”
The committee demanded additional documents, including financial statements from WJC and an affidavit from Farah.
Despite providing the documents, WND has not heard from the committee.
Farah says the committee’s dangling of a “provisional” approval appears to have been nothing more than a ruse.
“For nearly two years now, the Senate Press Gallery has been stringing WorldNetDaily.com along in response to our request for Capitol press credentials. We have been presented with one excuse after another, one illogical assertion after another, one irrelevant objection after another,” Farah said. “Once the gallery board members exhausted all of their excuses, once we had knocked down, one by one, all of their phony barriers to entry, they switched tactics. They provided what they call ‘provisional approval’ of WorldNetDaily, while still denying our main Capitol reporter access.
“In fact, they went further, even prohibiting Paul Sperry, one of the best investigative reporters in the business, the access he previously enjoyed,” he added.
Farah says he will appeal to Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the committee that governs the Standing Committee of Correspondents, which governs both the Senate and House daily press galleries. He will also alert Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., ranking Republican on the rules panel.
“It’s time for the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules to review the procedures and personnel it has in place serving as guardians of the press galleries,” Farah said. “The First Amendment is suffering under the watch of this effete corps of impudent snobs.”
Roberts, who summoned the Capitol police to the April hearing after a vocal witness (a former member of the Senate periodicals committee) stood up for WND, referred additional questions to Wiggins.
“Listen, I think I referred you to our attorney, didn’t I?” he fumed when a reporter called him again Monday.
The committee chairman, a veteran Bloomberg News correspondent, launched into a verbal fusillade against Farah early this year, screaming four-letter obscenities over a WND column on the committee’s foot-dragging.