WASHINGTON – In a shake-up shrouded in secrecy, the longtime director of the Senate Press Gallery has stepped down over a “personnel matter.”

Contacted at his Northern Virginia home, Robert E. Petersen Jr., a government employee, said he left over health concerns, contradicting accounts that he had been ousted.

He also told WorldNetDaily that the main reason the Standing Committee of Correspondents finally denied the popular newssite’s year-old application for permanent
congressional press credentials is because it delivers news in a medium relatively foreign to the panel.

“We’re dealing with a news entity which we’re not that familiar with,” Petersen said.

“Internet news services came into existence really in the last three or four years,” he added. “And we’ve had some that haven’t maintained an identity by staying in business very long.”

WorldNetDaily was founded in May 1997. Over the past five years, it has built up a readership of more than 2.5 million and is one of the few content websites paying its way.

In turning WND down, Standing Committee Chairman William Roberts cited what he called “cross-over ownership” with a nonprofit, Western Journalism Center, and an undefined shortage of “original content” on the site. That WND is based in cyberspace was not an issue.

WND appealed the decision, arguing that it has no operational ties to WJC, and produces more bylined stories on national and international news than other accredited members of the daily press gallery, including the Columbus Dispatch, which employs one of the committee members. In fact, WND exclusives have been picked up by the news organizations of all five members of the committee.

The Standing Committee has not decided on a permanent replacement for Petersen, who, according to Roll Call, was ousted by the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms over questionable job evaluations.

Petersen, 57, says he resigned for medical reasons, and was not fired. He ran the press gallery for 29 years.

“I decided I was going to leave two or three weeks ago,” he said. “I decided I need to stay home” and get well.

The committee in the interim has elevated his deputy, Joseph Keenan, to director.

Keenan, who has fought WorldNetDaily’s application for permanent press credentials since early last year, said he will act as gallery director “indefinitely – until the Standing Committee decides” on a replacement.

Slowed by diabetes and other medical problems, Petersen says he turned over the handling of WND’s application to Keenan, a career bureaucrat who’s been in the Senate for at least the past 17 years.

In fact, Petersen says he wasn’t able to make WND’s April 15 appeals hearing because he was recuperating from neck surgery performed three days earlier.

He says Keenan conducted all the research on WND, and was responsible for presenting its application to the committee.

“I’ve let Joe pretty much handle all the accreditation questions for the last couple of years, simply because it took a lot off my plate when he could do the background research,” Petersen said.

Since Feb. 8, 2001, when WND first applied for permanent credentials, Keenan has spent a good deal of time investigating WND – and is still doing so.

Originally, he said WND, as an independent Internet newspaper with no offline edition, was a different animal, and that he’d need more information on the company. Then he said the problem was the WJC. Then it was Judicial Watch. Then Richard Mellon Scaife. Then coverage of Vincent Foster’s death.

Now it’s back to the WJC, and the new issue of this reporter’s expired congressional press badge – the use of which he freely volunteered to the committee.

(WND’s difficulties with Keenan pre-date the application. He also resisted giving WND passes to both the 2001 presidential inauguration and 2000 political conventions.)

The committee, which meets once a month, promised a decision on WND’s appeal two weeks from its April 15 hearing. Neither Roberts nor the committee counsel has explained the latest delay.

“I haven’t even talked with the members of the committee about what they intend to do with your appeal,” Petersen said. “So how they decide on this, all I can say is good luck.”

The gallery seemed in turmoil Thursday morning, with one staffer mistakenly calling Roberts, who’s not a government employee and works for Bloomberg Business News, “acting director” of the gallery.

The staffer also told WND founder and Editor Joseph Farah, who was checking on a day-pass for an intern to cover a House hearing next week, that Roberts had unilaterally revoked all of WND’s congressional privileges, including the case-by-case access previously extended.

Keenan later said that that was not the case, and had another staffer issue the intern a temporary pass.

The Standing Committee governs access for daily journalists to both the Senate and House. It answers to the Senate Rules Committee, headed by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

Related stories:

Senate gallery moves ‘goalposts’ again

Senate gallery ‘dragging feet’ on WND appeal

Senate press panel withholds evidence

WND’s press-gallery hearing next week

April appeal in WND’s Senate press fight

WND appeals Senate gallery decision

Denial of WND press pass unlawful, says legal group

WND denied congressional pass.

Readers flood Senate gallery with e-mails

Related columns:

“Freedom of the press?”

What I told press police

Showdown in press gallery

Open letter to the news police

The Senate Press Rogues Gallery

The government-media cabal (including the Senate Press Gallery’s list of currently accredited daily news organizations).

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