Wash. Post's Solomon baselessly suggested shady Edwards land deal

In a January 19 front-page Washington Post article on former Sen. John Edwards' (D-NC) December 2006 sale of his Georgetown townhouse, former Associated Press reporter and recent Post hire John Solomon along with fellow Post staff writer Lois Romano reported that the sale price was ultimately “half a million dollars below the asking price but still $1.4 million more than the Edwardses paid four years earlier.” The Post further explained that the Edwardses had owned the house for five years and “did substantial renovations” during that period. But while the article noted that they received $1.4 million more than their purchase price, the Post failed to offer readers the necessary context to evaluate this transaction. The article gave no indication of the actual profit made by the Edwardses, after the transaction costs and the presumably substantial cost of the “substantial renovation” are considered. Nor did the article give any indication whether that profit -- which, again, Solomon and Romano did not report -- was out of line for houses in that neighborhood over that time period.

From the article, headlined “Identity of Edwards Home's Buyers Veiled” :

When former North Carolina senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards finally succeeded last month in selling his imposing Georgetown mansion for $5.2 million after it had languished on the market, the names of the buyers were not publicly disclosed.

At the time, Edwards's spokeswoman told reporters that the house had been sold to an unidentified corporation. In reality, the buyers were Paul and Terry Klaassen, according to several sources and confirmed by Edwards's spokeswoman yesterday.

The wealthy founders of the nation's largest assisted-living housing chain for seniors, the Klaassens are currently cooperating with a government inquiry in connection with accounting practices and stock options exercised by them and other company insiders. They are also the focus of legal complaints by some of the same labor unions whose support Edwards has been assiduously courting for his presidential bid.

The grand 18th-century house had lingered on Washington's slowing real estate market for more than 18 months. The Edwardses paid $3.8 million in 2002 for the six-bedroom Federal-style house once owned by socialite Polly Fritchey, and they did substantial renovations. The final sale price was half a million dollars below the asking price but still $1.4 million more than the Edwardses paid four years earlier.

As Salon.com's Tim Grieve noted, when one takes into account the rising property values in the Georgetown neighborhood between 2002 and 2005, as well as the unspecified “renovations,” there is nothing “particularly suspect” about the fact that the Edwardses sold the house for $1.4 million more than they bought it for in 2002:

It's hard to make anything at all out of any of this unless you start with the assumption that the price Edwards got for the house was either too high or too low. Can the Post make that case? Not so far as we can tell. The paper says that Edwards paid $3.8 million for the house in 2002 and then made “substantial renovations” before selling the house for $5.2 million, “half a million dollars below the asking price but still $1.4 million more than the Edwardses paid four years earlier.”

Is there anything particularly suspect about that? Not really. According to the Post's annual housing reports, median home prices in Georgetown rose by about 4 percent between 2002 and 2003, by about 5 percent between 2003 and 2004, and by about 15 percent between 2004 and 2005. Put those together, and the house Edwards bought for $3.8 million in 2002 could be worth around $4.8 million in 2006 -- and that's before you figure in the “substantial renovations” the family made or the appreciation they might have enjoyed in 2006, a year for which the Post's annual real estate statistics aren't yet available. Once you add those factors into the mix, a sales price of $5.2 hardly seems worthy of eyebrow raising, let alone front-page innuendo.

Solomon and Romano's treatment of the Edwards sale recalls an October 17, 2006, AP article Solomon co-wrote drawing attention to a land deal involving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). In that article -- headlined "Reid Got $1M in Land Sale" -- Solomon and fellow AP staff writer Kathleen Hennessey reported that Reid “collected a $1.1 million windfall on a Las Vegas land sale” and raised questions about his disclosure of the transaction to Congress. But not only did Solomon overstate Reid's profit on the sale by characterizing the proceeds as a "$1.1 million windfall," he failed to offer any context regarding the Las Vegas real estate market over the period Reid owned the land in question. Therefore -- as with his reporting on the Edwards sale -- readers were unable to calculate whether Reid's profit was in fact excessive or in line with local property values at the time. Nonetheless, the sale was quickly trumpted as a "sweetheart land deal" by Internet gossip Matt Drudge.

As blogger Joshua Micah Marshall noted, Solomon and Romano's article on Edwards appears to have provoked some skepticism from his new colleagues at the Post. From a January 19 washingtonpost.com online chat with Post congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman:

Arlington, VA: Can you explain why John Edwards' real estate transaction warrants front page coverage today? I read the article a couple of times, and frankly, I'm at a loss trying to decipher what John and Elizabeth Edwards did wrong. Now, if the buyers used part of proceeds from the questionable stock sale to buy the house, that's the buyers' problem, not the seller. And considering the Edwardses sold the house for LESS than what they were asking, I ask again: what did they do wrong?

Jonathan Weisman: Umm, this is, for obvious reasons, a sensitive question. I for one was looking for more of a connection between the Edwards and the buyers. I didn't see it. Frankly, I bought a house from some people named Buckmaster DeWolf and Rosemary Ratcliffe. I love their names but I met them for about 15 minutes as we signed our papers. So what?

Media Matters for America has previously identified other misleading reports by Solomon about Senate Democrats, including:

  • In February, Solomon wrote an article alleging ties between Reid and disgraced former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff that came under fire, from Media Matters and others, for omitting crucial facts regarding the actions in question. Shortly thereafter, more details came to light undermining Solomon's allegations. But rather than acknowledge the flaws in his article, Solomon wrote a follow-up piece that misleadingly offered the new information as support for his original case.

In November 2005, Solomon similarly alleged connections between Abramoff and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), but he ignored evidence undermining his claim that the lobbyist had directed contributions to Dorgan after the senator aided his clients. When Dorgan later returned the contributions he had received from Abramoff's clients, Solomon wrote an article in which he took credit for this development but ignored the evidence undermining the purported ties between Abramoff and Dorgan that Solomon pushed in his first article.