I'm not going to defend former Port of Seattle commissioner Rob Holland against the hit-piece the Seattle Times ran on him a couple weeks ago. Holland resigned rather than toughing it out, so I won't waste the effort defending a politician who won't defend himself.
But Holland's friend and former campaign manager, Michael Martin, was also maligned in the piece, and unfairly so. And he's fighting mad at Emily Heffter and her editor Matthew Kreamer for refusing to retract a factually incorrect assertion that implies inappropriate behavior:
The report also turned up a lewd photograph on Holland’s work cellphone and found that Holland once allowed a friend, Michael Martin, to use his Port credit card to buy camera equipment at Fry’s Electronics.
Except that's not what happened and that's not what the report found. Martin did not use Holland's credit card to purchase anything, and the report Heffter cites actually found this particular allegation to be "unsubstantiated" (PDF, page 25). Martin has repeatedly asked Heffter and Kreamer to issue a correction, and they have repeatedly refused.
"At the end of the day, all you have is your reputation," Martin told me. And he desperately wants his reputation cleared. The Seattle Times has yet to respond to a request for comment.
According to Martin, he accompanied Holland to Fry's to purchase a battery for a Port-owned camera that Holland was taking with him on an official Port trade mission. While Holland went to the restroom, Martin went to look for the battery. "When the sales associate found the specific battery, he asked me my name and I gave it to him," says Martin. The associate printed up an invoice (Fry's calls it a "customer quotation"), attached it to the battery, and handed it to Martin. Martin says that he then met back up with Holland and handed him the battery and invoice. Holland paid for the battery—appropriately—using his Port credit card. It was only later that they realized the transaction left Martin's name on the invoice.
Is this invoice proof that Emily Heffter used Michael Martin's credit card to purchase camera equipment? Of course not!
In an email exchange obtained by The Stranger, Martin repeatedly attempts to explain these circumstances to Heffter and Kreamer. He even returned to Fry's, gave Heffter's name to the sales associate in the camera department, and purchased a battery with his own credit card, creating a Fry's invoice with Heffter's name on it in an attempt to prove to her and her editor that such invoices are evidence of absolutely nothing. Indeed, the report Heffter cites specifically found the allegations of "potential unauthorized use by 3rd party of Port credit card" to be "unsubstantiated." Period.
So what explains the Seattle Times refusal to correct this erroneous (and arguably defamatory) assertion? My guess is that they are partially just loath to poke holes in a story of which they are clearly so gleefully proud. They took down a pro-labor Port commissioner. Yay for them! In fact, the paper is so proud of this "watchdog story" that executive editor David Boardman cites it as a primary reason to purchase a digital subscription: "Every day, we give you news you can’t get anywhere else," boasts Boardman. (Um, perhaps because it's wrong?)
But also, reading their emails to Martin, both Heffter and Kreamer just come off as incredibly confused. "There is a receipt and additional official documentation showing you as the purchaser of camera equipment for the Port, with Commissioner Holland’s Port credit card being used," Kreamer writes to Martin in a February 25 email, totally ignoring the fact that this so-called "receipt" proves nothing of the kind. "The Port report you cite says the third-party use of the card (by you) was not found to be unauthorized, but we never wrote that it was," Kreamer continues. "The items purchased were indeed for Port use, the audit found."
First of all, let me just point out that the report cited by everyone involved was not an "audit." I know this because on page two the report clearly states: "This review was not an 'audit'." (The emphasis is theirs.) Yet throughout the email thread, both Heffter and Martin repeatedly refer to the report as an "audit." It is not. And if there's one thing journalists should understand it's that words have meaning. An "audit" implies a thorough examination of records and accounts, whereas this report describes itself as a "selective not exhaustive" review of information to "identify potential concerns" and to "provide recommendations." Recommendations like providing orientation to new commissioners, and actually establishing written policies governing commissioner credit card use.
In that context, even the allegations against Holland don't amount to much.
Second, authorized or not, the report did not find that Martin used Holland's port credit card to purchase camera equipment. It just didn't. That is the assertion that Heffter makes, and it is an assertion that is nowhere in the report. All that Heffter has to back up this assertion is a Fry's "customer quotation" with Martin's name on it, not a "receipt," as both Heffter and Kreamer mischaracterize it. Again, words have meanings. True, there's nothing in the report that says that Martin didn't use Holland's credit card, but then there's nothing in the report that says that Martin doesn't strangle puppies, and I don't see that allegation in Heffter's article.
Third, both Heffter and Kreamer repeatedly deny that the article ever implied that the battery purchase was "unauthorized." But if they understood the report to conclude that there was no impropriety, why include the allegation in the first place? Lumped together in a sentence with an accusation about a lewd cellphone photo, any reader might reasonably infer that Holland and Martin did something improper. They did not.
But the assertion is more than just misleading—it is demonstrably false: The report did not find that Martin used Holland's Port credit card to purchase camera equipment. That is what Heffter asserts, and that is what Martin wants retracted. It is a reasonable request—one Martin attempted to make amicably before coming to me. And given their obstinate refusal to make this retraction, it only leaves me wondering what other egregious (and possibly defamatory) errors this hit piece on Holland includes.
I emailed both Heffter and Kreamer to give them the opportunity to comment, but have yet to receive a reply. But I've appended Martin's email thread below, so that you can judge them by their own words:
From: Michael Martin Date: Mon, Feb 11, 2013 at 5:51 PM Subject: Correction and Retraction Request To: email@example.com
To Whom It May Concern: One of your reporters, Emily Heffter, wrote an article titled, "Holland’s first term at Port a tangle of problems" and, among the many things I find disturbing and disgusting about this kind of journalism is the fact that I am even mentioned at all. Furthermore, the following statement made in the article is entirely false based on an independent investigation conducted by the Port. Her statement reads as follows:
"Holland once allowed a friend, Michael Martin, to use his Port credit card to buy camera equipment at Fry’s Electronics."
In October of 2011, an outside investigator/consultant hired by the port concluded that this was unsubstantiated. In fact, the report specifically says, "Potential unauthorized use by 3rd party of Port credit card - denied and unsubstantiated" (pg. 25).
I believe the aforementioned fact warrants a correction to the article both in the online version and a retraction in print. I will be following up this request in writing and look forward to hearing back from you regarding this misleading statement.
— Michael Martin
On Tue, Feb 12, 2013 at 10:40 AM, Emily Heffter wrote:
Hi Michael, I got your note about the Fry’s purchase I mentioned in my story. I have a receipt from the Port that shows you used Holland’s credit-card to purchase $30.64 of camera equipment on Oct. 11, 2010. It looks to me like the audit looked into whether the purchase was unauthorized and determined it wasn’t. I hope that helps explain what I wrote.
If you want to talk more about this, my contact information is below and I’m happy to discuss it. I’ve also cc’ed my editor, Matt Kreamer, in case you want to get in touch with him.
Emily Heffter Seattle Times
From: Michael Martin Sent: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 3:02 PM To: Emily Heffter Cc: Matthew Kreamer Subject: Re: story
I appreciate you getting back to me and cc'ing your editor. I too have a receipt. Except my receipt says that you used my credit card to purchase $12.03 worth of camera equipment today at Fry's (see attached). Can you explain this? Did you in fact use my credit card? It would be very concerning to me if you did and, the receipt says you did.
Furthermore, the audit (Coskey report) is ABSOLUTELY clear on this fact: unauthorized use of the Port credit card by a third party is "unsubstantiated." Let me be clear, I am asking now for the second time that you retract in print and update the online version of your story to reflect the facts.
Are you going to retract and update your story? Please talk this over with your editor and let me know what you decide.
From: Matthew Kreamer Date: Tue, Feb 12, 2013 at 4:10 PM Subject: RE: story To: Michael Martin , Emily Heffter
Please allow me to jump in here.
I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make by what you’ve done today (which, by the way, is concerning in its lunacy and potential legal implications).
Are you trying to say that you did not use the card that day? Are you alleging that someone else went to Fry’s, used Mr. Holland’s credit card to buy camera equipment, and lied when they named you as the purchaser? If so, I’d like to explore that further, possibly for a story.
The audit is very clear that when you (presuming you agree it was you) bought the camera equipment that day, it was authorized. It doesn’t say you weren’t the purchaser. And that’s all Ms. Heffter wrote in the story – that you used Mr. Holland’s Port-issued card to make the purchase. It didn’t say it wasn’t authorized or allowed, nor was that implied.
Please write back – or better yet, call – and we can have a discussion about your implied allegation that someone went to Fry’s that day and forged your name (as you apparently did with Emily Heffter today). If that’s the case, we’re certainly happy to explore and potentially correct it.
From: Michael Martin Sent: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 2:48 PM To: Emily Heffter Subject: Amicable Resolution
I am writing to you because I would like to reach an amicable resolution regarding your statement about me in the Seattle Times. "...Holland once allowed a friend, Michael Martin, to use his Port credit card to buy camera equipment at Fry’s Electronics." I am writing to you because I would like to reach an amicable resolution regarding your statement about me in the Seattle Times.
The reason I take issue with this is because 1.) it is not true. I never used the Port credit card and, 2.) the Coskey report says "Unauthorized use by a third party of the Port credit card - denied and unsubstantiated." You may feel this is a small matter in the scope of your story but I take serious issue with being lied about in a major U.S. newspaper.
I really don't want to have to spend the time or the resources to pursue this matter legally and am now reaching out for the third time to get this resolved. Please change the story to reflect the facts.
Thanks for following up. I don’t think it’s a small matter; I, too, want to make sure that what is in my story is correct. I have exchanged phone calls with Vickie Rawlins and a Port spokesman, who are helping get me some more details about that finding in the Coskey report. It will probably take a few more days, but I am working on it.
From: Michael Martin Date: Thu, Feb 21, 2013 at 9:23 PM Subject: Re: Amicable Resolution To: Emily Heffter Cc: Matthew Kreamer
Isn't the idea is to check facts BEFORE the story is printed? You claim Holland allowed me to use the port credit card AND site a report to back your claim. Did you read Commissioner Practices Review Summary of Current State of Findings? The report does NOT say Holland allowed me to use the Port credit card. So what more is there to look into?
I too spoke with Vickie Rawlins over the phone and came away with the impression that the Port would let the report stand on it's own and not add any additional comment. Why do you need to wait?
I take this matter, my integrity, and my involvement in the community very seriously! I've worked diligently to present you with facts that call into question your claim that Holland allowed me to use his Port credit card. I implore you to treat this matter as expeditiously as possible.
I am now asking for the fourth time for you to retract in print and update the online version of your story. Are you going to? I look forward to resolving this issue in an amicable way.
From: Michael Martin Sent: Monday, February 25, 2013 12:17 PM To: Emily Heffter Cc: Matthew Kreamer Subject: Story Correction
You told me you would get back to me in few days and that time has now passed. I have asked you four times, and am now giving you a fifth opportunity, to correct your story to reflect the facts. Your claim that Holland allowed me to use the Port credit card to purchase camera equipment is false. Additionally, your claim is refuted by the Port's own report: "Commission Review Practices and Summary of Current State of Findings"
From: Matthew Kreamer Date: Mon, Feb 25, 2013 at 1:28 PM Subject: RE: Story Correction To: Michael Martin, Emily Heffter
Thanks for the emails. We haven’t been stalling, but take accuracy very seriously and have been working in the interest of fairness and thoroughness to be sure we’ve addressed your concerns. That includes trying to track down information you said existed and talking to people you suggested who might show we were wrong. After failing to find any evidence to suggest the story is inaccurate, we won’t be making a correction.
There is a receipt and additional official documentation showing you as the purchaser of camera equipment for the Port, with Commissioner Holland’s Port credit card being used. It was common for you to perform office tasks for Commissioner Holland at the time. The Port report you cite says the third-party use of the card (by you) was not found to be unauthorized, but we never wrote that it was. The items purchased were indeed for Port use, the audit found.
Since you first asked for a correction, you told me there was some other longer version of the audit report showing we were wrong that you would track down and get to me, and you were unable to. We have asked about that, too, and nobody at the Port seems to know what we’re talking about. You also said Vickie Rawlins would be able to confirm your version of events – that Commissioner Holland walked away to use the restroom at the moment the sales clerk asked for a purchaser name, but returned in time to complete the transaction himself – but she was unable to confirm that, beyond saying what was in the report.
We believe the story is accurate, and supported by documentation. If you come across any other documentation that confirms your version of events in the future, we’ll be open to revisiting the issue.