A longtime columnist of the Sacramento Bee who resigned amid controversy last month may have invented the existence of 43 people she wrote about over several years, an internal investigation found.

Diana Griego Erwin

The paper announced yesterday it had completed a probe into Diana Griego Erwin’s writing, stating: “We have been unable to verify the existence of 43 people she named in her columns. This doesn’t prove these people don’t exist, but despite extensive research we have been unable to find them.”

Bee Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez wrote that recent tightening in editorial standards at the paper led to questions about the columnist’s writing.

Wrote Rodriguez in a preface to the paper’s story on the scandal: “I’m sorry our work with Diana Griego Erwin didn’t meet our expectations or yours. Our recent lessons have been painful, but you have my word that we are committed to improving. Nothing means more to us than your trust and readership.”

Erwin, whose column ran three times a week in the paper’s Metro section, resigned May 11 after failing to substantiate details from several recent columns. She claims she has not fabricated any information.

The apparent creative license appeared to become more prevalent in the last several months. Though Erwin worked for the Bee for 12 years, 30 of the 43 unverifiable people were mentioned in columns between January 2004 and April 2005. Those 30 names occurred in 27 columns of the 171 Erwin wrote during the 16-month period, the Bee reported.

The 30 names could not be found in voter registration rolls, property records, telephone books, identity databases or through scores of phone calls.

Reported the paper: “Many of the columns in question fit a template: essays, often with a surprising O. Henry twist, about a singular person who faces a challenge and surmounts it. Their stories frequently reflect a theme taken from current headlines – wildfires, for example, or prison brutality, school shootings, murderous road rage or a high-profile trial.”

One column that ran May 13, 1997, described Victor Budriyev, a Russian immigrant who supposedly lost his sweetheart to the bright lights of Los Angeles. The paper could find no Victor Budriyev in the United States, nor a single citation for “Budriyev” in all of the massive Google search engine.

“These are people we should have been able to find,” said Rodriguez. “It kills us that we can’t. We still hope they will turn up, but we’re presenting the facts as we found them. Obviously, we feel strongly that we should have been able to find these individuals.”

Suspicion was raised when the columnist couldn’t identify the bar at which she supposedly interviewed a bartender – the day before she was asked about it. Shortly before she resigned, Erwin was asked to provide information about four people she mentioned in recent columns – but to no avail.

The columnist still claims the people in question exist.

Erwin wrote to the Bee in a June 9 e-mail: “The story has been told and I am sad that The Bee continues to pursue this.”

She took issue with the continued scrutiny, saying it is undeserved, and then concluded: “Surely there are more important stories out there than another about me. I know there are. Even now, I come across them every day.”

At age 25, Erwin worked on a project that won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for public service for the Denver Post and has been the recipient of other national awards as well.

“With a high-profile columnist, especially with the credentials present in this case, it is not first nature or even second nature to ask them if the person they’re writing about actually exists,” Rodriguez said. “Columnists are given more latitude in their writing style. It’s more personalized. They share their voice and their views with the community.”

Marv Essary wrote on ChronWatch.com that Erwin’s offenses “dwarf those of Jayson Blair,” the New York Times reporter who was ousted in 2003 for making up news stories.

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