In an April 13 McClatchy Newspapers article, reporter Michael Doyle highlighted allegations in two reports by freelance writer Peter Byrne published in the Bay Area's various Metro Newspapers (including the North Bay Bohemian and Metro Silicon Valley) that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) had a conflict of interest “by serving through last year as chair and ranking member of the Senate's military construction appropriations subcommittee [MILCON] at the same time that her husband had financial interests in two firms that rely on defense contracts.” Doyle wrote, “The Metro stories also contended that Feinstein had 'resigned' from the military construction subcommittee, suggesting she departed under pressure.”
Byrne had written in his second article: “Perhaps she resigned from MILCON because she could not take the heat generated by the Bohemian's exposé of her ethics.”* But the Senate Appropriations Committee announced its new subcommittee assignments in a January 10 press release -- approximately two weeks before Byrne's original “exposé” appeared in the January 24-30 editions of Metro Silicon Valley and the Bohemian.* That press release did not list Feinstein as a member of MILCON. It reported that she is a member of the following subcommittees: agriculture, rural development, and FDA; commerce, justice, and science; defense; energy and water development; transportation and Housing and Urban Development; and interior and environment.
According to Doyle's article, Byrne “received a grant from the liberal Nation magazine's investigative fund” to write the story on Feinstein. Doyle wrote that after The Nation rejected the article, “Byrne said he 'flogged it around to a lot of liberal publications' before getting it published in Metro.” His first article, "Senator Feinstein's Iraq Conflict," which reported critics' allegations that Feinstein's membership on MILCON posed a conflict of interest, appeared in the January 24-30 editions of the Bohemian and Metro Silicon Valley. A subsequent article, "Feinstein Resigns," appeared in the March 14-20 edition of the Bohemian. A version of this report published in March 21-27 edition of Metro Silicon Valley bore the inaccurate sub-headline “Senator exits MILCON following Metro exposé, vet-care scandal.” Both versions of Byrne's report stated, “Perhaps she resigned from MILCON because she could not take the heat generated by the Bohemian's [or Metro's] exposé of her ethics.”*
The Metro stories also contended that Feinstein had “resigned” from the military construction subcommittee, suggesting she departed under pressure.
Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman Tom Gavin replied Thursday that seven other lawmakers besides Feinstein had flipped appropriation subcommittees this year.
“This is a process that happens at the start of every Congress,” Gavin said. Feinstein left the military panel to chair the subcommittee that handles the Forest Service, the National Park Service and other agencies crucial to California.
“Frankly, for California, it's a better opportunity for the senator, and she took it,” Gerber said, adding that the claim that Feinstein had resigned from the military subcommittee was “just not true.”
Doyle portrayed the competing explanations for Feinstein's subcommittee departure in a “he said-she said” fashion, failing to note the fact that Feinstein left the panel before the publication of Byrne's first article.*
Describing the alleged “conflict of interest,” Doyle reported:
Critics have accused Feinstein of having a conflict of interest by serving through last year as chair and ranking member of the Senate's military construction appropriations subcommittee at the same time that her husband had financial interests in two firms that rely on defense contracts.
The Senate panel approves some $16 billion annually for military construction projects.
Until 2005, Blum had major holdings in two firms, URS Corp. and Perini Corp., that rely on defense contracts.
Perini received $200 million in federal contracts from 2000 to 2006, primarily with the Army, according to records compiled by the private watchdog group OMB Watch. URS received $1.8 billion worth of contracts - primarily Air Force, Army and Navy - during the same period
Feinstein's spokesman, Scott Gerber, declared that the senator has always “acted appropriately” and within the Senate's ethics guidelines. He sternly denounced suggestions of conflict, first raised in articles published in the Bay Area's free Metro weekly newspaper, and noted that the Pentagon, not Congress, decides who is awarded contracts.
Yet after noting that "[Byrne's] original story goes into considerable detail," Doyle added that “Feinstein's office has in turn prepared a detailed rebuttal” -- without informing readers whether or not Feinstein's rebuttal undermines Byrne's reporting.
Doyle also quoted Feinstein's spokesperson Scott Gerber as saying: “The story is filled with inaccuracies, errors and distortions ... and it has been pushed by the right-wing bloggers.” He then wrote:
Actually, the story has migrated from left to right and back again.
On Sunday, it was the left's turn, as female anti-war protesters gathered outside Feinstein's San Francisco home. Code Pink leader Medea Benjamin declared that Feinstein and Blum “have profited from this war” in Iraq.
* CLARIFICATION: This item originally stated that “Doyle did not note a central falsehood in Byrne's reporting: His second Metro article bore the sub-headline 'Senator exits MILCON following Metro exposé, vet-care scandal.' ” In fact, the version of Byrne's follow-up report that was published first -- by the Bohemian -- did not include that sub-headline. Media Matters originally linked to a version of this column that appeared in the Metro Silicon Valley, which published its version after the Bohemian and included the sub-headline. In a comment responding to this item, Byrne referred to this as a “deficient subhead that the Metro editor unfortunately tacked onto the story.”