Wash. Post reported on "comparisons" of Hastert and Reid land deals, ignored key contrasts


In a Washington Post article, staff writer Jonathan Weisman purported to equate the controversy surrounding a land deal involving Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid with another involving Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert. But Weisman ignored a key difference between the two: While there are allegations that Hastert used his office to increase the value of his real estate, there is no similar evidence about Reid's transaction.

In an October 17 article on the decision by Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (NV) to amend disclosure reports to "more fully explain" a 2004 land deal, Washington Post staff writer Jonathan Weisman reported that the controversy "has brought comparisons to a real estate transaction last year that netted House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) $2 million. In both cases, congressional leaders reaped significant windfalls from land that was purchased in rapidly growing regions and then sold as part of ventures that appear to have obscured the lawmakers' involvement." But in equating the two deals, Weisman ignored a key difference repeatedly highlighted by Media Matters for America: While there are allegations that Hastert used his congressional office to increase the value of his real estate, there is no evidence that Reid used his position of authority to affect the value of the land in question.

Further, while Weisman claimed that the Reid story has "brought comparisons" between the two deals, he cited no examples of the media making that comparison. Media Matters could find only one example -- a post on a New Republic weblog -- of the media drawing that comparison, much less pointing out the apparent key difference between the two transactions.

In an October 11 article, Associated Press writers John Solomon and Kathleen Hennessey first reported that Reid profited in 2004 "on a Las Vegas land sale even though he hadn't personally owned the property for three years" and that "Reid did not disclose to Congress an earlier sale in which he transferred his land to a company created by a friend and took a financial stake in that company." On October 16, Reid announced that he would amend his financial disclosure forms to "clarify" a 2001 transaction in which he transferred the title of the land to a limited liability company (LLC). "As the amended forms make clear, this routine legal move in no way altered my actual ownership of the land," Reid stated in a press release. "On each disclosure form after 2001, I have added a note to clarify that the land already disclosed in detail on those forms was owned by me through the LLC."

In his October 17 Post article, Weisman noted this development and went on to claim that the Reid controversy "has brought comparisons" to the Hastert deal:

The actions, prompted by reports by the Associated Press, are proving to be a headache for Democrats as they press their case that Republicans have succumbed to a "culture of corruption." The land deal, in particular, has brought comparisons to a real estate transaction last year that netted House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) $2 million. In both cases, congressional leaders reaped significant windfalls from land that was purchased in rapidly growing regions and then sold as part of ventures that appear to have obscured the lawmakers' involvement.

Missing from Weisman's comparison is any reference to the key allegation made over the Hastert deal. On June 15, the Chicago Sun-Times reported:

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert pocketed almost $2 million from real estate deals adjacent to his Plano home in booming Kendall County, one of the fastest growing areas in the nation.

The transactions prompted questions Wednesday from the Sunlight Foundation, a new watchdog group, about whether Hastert, who earmarked $207 million in federal dollars for the proposed Prairie Parkway, had his profits swollen because of the highway.

In an October 6 column for The New Republic Online, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman Ornstein and Center for American Progress senior fellow Scott Lilly filled in more details regarding Hastert's "unusually active role in shepherding" the 2005 transportation bill, to which he earmarked the funds for the Prairie Parkway. According to their column, Hastert assumed "a more aggressive role than he played at any other point in his speakership." Ornstein and Lilly also wrote:

The Hastert earmark not only provided money for Parkway construction but mandated that the construction take place on the portion of the Parkway nearest his recently purchased property. While the money contained in the highway bill was sufficient to build only about one-third of the entire 36-mile road, the speaker insured that the right third would be selected by also earmarking funds for construction of a [sic] interchange in that portion of the proposed tho[r]oughfare [sic].

By contrast, there are no allegations that Reid used his office in any way that might have affected the value of his land.

But not only did Weisman overlook this key difference between the two controversies, he provided no basis for his claim that the Reid story has "brought comparisons" between them. In fact, a Media Matters survey of reporting on the Reid land deal -- between October 11 and October 17 -- found only one instance in which the media have compared this story to the more severe allegations leveled at Hastert.*

The one exception is The New Republic Online weblog The Plank, which posted an October 16 entry by Michael Crowley titled "A Tale of Two Land Deals," in which he noted that the Reid controversy "is catching on in papers nationwide," while "the media has never showed much interest in the Hastert land story." Crowley went on to write, "Given that the Hastert case is clearer -- and involves far more money and higher returns than the murky Reid story -- that's pretty odd."

Nonetheless, during an October 17 online discussion on washingtonpost.com, Weisman continued to ignore the crucial difference between the two stories, even after a reader noted that Hastert had allegedly "engineered federal funding" for personal profit. From the discussion:

White Plains, N.Y.: Why is there so much noise about Reid's land deal and so little about Hastert's much more profitable -- and sleazy -- land deal?

Jonathan Weisman: We put Hastert's deal on the front page. If anything, the opposite is true.


Washington, D.C.: Crooks and bigger crooks?

Rahm Emmanuel, former Clinton staffer and now a Congressman from Illinois, was quoted in a recent New Yorker article to the effect that Dennis Hastert is a crook of the common garden variety found on the Hill. Specifically, he engineered federal funding for some kind of land deal in Illinois where he had bought property, increasing his net worth, according to Emmanuel, from $300,000 to six or seven million. Why do you think Emmanuel has not brought this up, especially in light of the accusations against Senator Harry Reid? I mean, the New Yorker is a serious magazine, and it's doubtful that a sitting congressman would have said such a thing to the reporter if he hadn't had some kind of hard evidence. Why don't we hear more about this?

Jonathan Weisman: Rahm was pointing to a land deal that has gotten lots and lots of press, including a front page story in the Post by yours truly and exhaustive coverage in the Illinois press. This is no secret. You just have to follow the news.

* This survey consisted of a Nexis search of "News (All)" using the terms "(Harry w/2 Reid) w/30 (real estate or land)"

Posted In
Government, Ethics
The Washington Post
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