Rudy Giuliani, a New York Times reporter and me: When corrections go wrong

Ken Vogel of the New York Times corrected my Giuliani article — but his command of facts is questionable

Published November 16, 2019 12:00PM (EST)

Ken Vogel and Rudy Giuliani (Getty Images)
Ken Vogel and Rudy Giuliani (Getty Images)

This article is a correction and apology. I'd like to frame it in the context of a passage I wrote in Paste Magazine last year about the dangers of the oxymoronic "fairness bias" in mainstream press. The passage was recently cited in Merriam-Webster.

The state of our nation and the state of our president have all but passed the point of rescue, but the press, in misguided pursuit of objectivity and led by the New York Times, still "bothsides" its coverage. Make no mistake: This too is bias, and though it's not nearly as corrosive to democracy as the Trump administration, it distorts and accelerates that corrosion — all in the name of neutrality, no less.

Last Sunday, I published an article in Salon about an apparent password Rudy Giuliani accidentally texted me and the bizarre chain of subsequent events that led me to discover a surprising and previously unreported bond that helped clarify the cloudy nexus that includes Giuliani, two of his clients who are now under indictment for federal financial crimes, his new 20-year-old communications director, and a Long Island personal injury lawyer named Charles Gucciardo. That nexus coalesced in the fall of 2018 when, for reasons still not fully understood, Gucciardo reportedly paid Giuliani Partners $500,000 in two installments, structured as a loan to a sham business run by Giuliani's indicted clients.

That Salon article went viral, and now, based on new information given to me directly, I would like to correct part of it and offer Charles Gucciardo an apology. This new information, if accurate, might make the New York Times consider taking similar steps.

"I know I got it right"

While I was writing that piece, I called New York Times reporter Ken Vogel to clarify another outlet's inaccurate characterization of a claim in the report he co-authored last week that broke the news about Gucciardo's role in the payment. Here's the initial claim, as reported in the Times:

In 2018, [Gucciardo] made his biggest donation on record to date — $50,000 to the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action — and attended an event for major donors at the Trump hotel featuring appearances by the president and Donald Trump Jr.

It was there that he met Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman, who had recently co-founded a company called Global Energy Producers that donated $325,000 to the PAC.

The inaccuracy on my mind was found in a Daily Beast news brief about Vogel's report, which described this occasion as the "first" time Gucciardo had met Parnas and Fruman. It struck me that Vogel hadn't actually made that claim. (In perhaps a bit of dramatic foreshadowing, Vogel had called me a month before about an unrelated story I published Oct. 2 in BuzzFeed News — I'm an independent journalist — which contained previously unreported details that Vogel told me had been reported. They had not.) 

Anyway, I called Vogel and identified myself, reminded him of our October conversation, and explained I was working on a piece related to his article. After I spelled out my name at his request, Vogel confirmed his claim and explained that the Times had phrased it that way "for a reason." So I went with that information, citing his report. My wife, who contributed research to the article, witnessed the call.

Vogel has called me twice since then. In our most recent conversation, on Monday, he texted and then called to berate me, a journalist writing a report, for having had the nerve to confirm with him — the author of a report I was using as source material — that another outlet had mischaracterized one of that report's central claims.

I recorded the eight-minute call, which Vogel did not say was off the record. He told me that when I call someone like him who is "in the middle of, like, a major, you know, shitstorm about this or related subjects," he didn't like "the feeling" that I was "like, fact-checking or seeking to undermine the story."

Vogel justified his antagonism in a text: "You cold called me and immediately challenged my reporting. My response was how I respond when I know I got it right."

Getting it right

By sheer coincidence, some hours later I received a call from Stephen LaMagna, a lawyer speaking on behalf of Charles Gucciardo (the aforementioned Long Island attorney), who was upset with me because my article had also restated Vogel's claim, which was significant to his client. That claim was also significant to the Times' report, and by Vogel's own acknowledgment: He included it in a short Twitter thread curated to promote the article.

But LaMagna told me — multiple times and with force — that the claim was false. "My client never met Mr. Parnas or Mr. Fruman at the [June 2018 Trump Hotel] super PAC," he said. "Period." LaMagna added that Gucciardo didn't have "a relationship" with Giuliani until around the time of the loan, but stopped short of saying that was the first time they had ever met. Nor did he say Gucciardo and Giuliani hadn't run into each other at the June 2018 fundraiser or prior to it.

Giuliani told me that he "knew of" Gucciardo before the payment.

Gucciardo is not suspected of any wrongdoing, and there's no evidence he was involved in any of Giuliani's work in Ukraine on behalf of President Trump. LaMagna told me, "My client never went to the Ukraine."

After speaking with LaMagna, I revisited Vogel's article and realized that his report's unqualified statement of fact about the June 2018 Trump hotel event was actually unsourced. It's not clear why the Times felt confident publishing a pillar of its reporting without including any verification or attribution — on the record, documented or anonymous. I have no idea where the Times got that information in the first place. Had Vogel not confirmed the claim to me personally and in advance, I would now be embarrassed for having cited it.

Furthermore, the Times report does not mention whether the paper reached out to Gucciardo's team for comment about this or related claims in the report's timeline. (I reached out repeatedly to Gucciardo and LaMagna for my article, but received limited comment.) That's not inconsequential, because Vogel's report suggests that this chain of events influenced the peculiar and newsworthy $500,000 loan from Gucciardo to Giuliani's shady allies.

(Gucciardo and Giuliani have verified this payment, by the way. Reuters was first to report it, in October. The New York Times was first to report Gucciardo's involvement, last Wednesday.)

It's possible that LaMagna's denial is inaccurate, but because the Times did not substantiate its claim or say whether the paper afforded Gucciardo opportunity for comment, we cannot know. This means I can no longer stand by the claim.

In the sentence following the unsourced and subsequently contested claim, the Times report reads, "The next month, Mr. Parnas, Mr. Fruman and Mr. Gucciardo all went on a group trip to Israel, according to people who traveled with them." I structured my report similarly, but while writing this correction found several previous reports — e.g., here, here, here, and here — that New York gastroenterologist Dr. Joseph Frager, who headed that trip, had invited Parnas and Fruman to Israel when he met them at the June 2018 fundraiser.

Frager had also invited former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who in April 2018 announced he would be returning to his investment firm, SkyBridge Capital. In a recent call, Scaramucci, who lives in New York, told me that he did not know Gucciardo before the trip, and did not know who had invited Gucciardo. Scaramucci, who maintains that Gucciardo did nothing wrong, bailed out of the trip early, hackles raised by Parnas and Fruman's schmoozing. He also told me Frager had recently called him to apologize for bringing the two men on the trip.

In my call with LaMagna, Gucciardo's attorney, he said, "The first time my client ever met these two gentlemen [i.e., Parnas and Fruman] was on a bus, part of a larger group of people, as you know, in Israel as part of the National Council of Young Israel. To insinuate anything other than that is absolutely wrong."

This information suggests the timeline is not as neat, and not as damning, as the Times and myself (building in part off Vogel's report) made it seem.

Ken Vogel did not respond to requests on Monday, Tuesday and Friday for comment on these discrepancies. The New York Times did not offer comment. LaMagna and Gucciardo did not respond to multiple requests for additional comment. LaMagna did say in our call that his team had contacted the Times and "dressed them down, too." At this writing, however, the Times report has not been changed or corrected.

Ken Vogel: My personal experience

When Vogel called me last Sunday after my article ran in Salon, he at first graciously congratulated me on the scoop. In the next breath, however, he claimed he'd been on the same trail, specifically and without evidence in regard to my reporting about Christianné Allen, Giuliani's new communications director, whose connections to Gucciardo and Parnas have not to my knowledge previously been reported elsewhere.

On Tuesday Vogel repeated this: "It's like fine, interesting story that, you know, builds on speculation that's out there that we're aware of but didn't include in our short sort of news item."

To be honest, I'm gobsmacked by the unprofessionalism. Of course Vogel is under more pressure than I am, and his experience and portfolio is far more extensive, serious and impressive. I can explain why I don't work for the New York Times, and far be it from me to criticize him.

And yet.

There's more than one questionable claim in Vogel's scoop. This might be deep-sixing the lede, but it's looking increasingly likely Vogel got the scoop itself wrong. His report presumes without evidence that Gucciardo paid Giuliani Partners on behalf of Parnas' company, the entertainingly-named Fraud Guarantee. But the article's many on-the-record quotes from Giuliani and Gucciardo's team refer only to an unnamed "company." Fraud Guarantee is only identified by way of the weakest level of sourcing, anonymous "people familiar with the deal."

On Friday, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal published reports that strongly suggest Gucciardo's payment might actually have been on behalf of another Parnas company, Global Energy Producers. Parnas' indictment alleges that a foreign national arranged for two $500,000 wires to Global Energy Producers around the same time that Gucciardo paid $500,000 in two installments to Giuliani Partners.

A source told the Journal: "In conversations that continued into this summer, Messrs. Parnas and Fruman told Ukrainian officials and others that Mr. Giuliani was a partner in the pipeline venture, which was a project of their company, Global Energy Producers."

Global Energy Producers was allegedly the vehicle for Parnas and Fruman's campaign finance violations. Gucciardo did not respond to requests for comment. Giuliani denies having any personal business interests in Ukraine.

This is far from the only article where Vogel has been manipulated by a source. Google his name plus Ukraine.

Vogel's work was recently criticized by Fiona Hill, former senior director for Russia at the National Security Council, who said in sworn congressional testimony that the "both-sides" narrative alleging Ukrainian election interference in 2016 on behalf of Hillary Clinton — mainstreamed specifically in a 2017 article Vogel co-wrote for Politico — was "a fiction." (Politico has qualified this allegation in subsequent reporting.) Hill said that her questioner, in repeatedly referencing Vogel's article, seemed to be "trying to peddle an alternative variation of whether the Ukrainians subverted our election." She said, "I don't want to be part of that, and I will not be part of it."

Vogel also credits himself for "literally" breaking "the story upon which the impeachment inquiry is based," a reference to his May 1 New York Times article focused on "conflict of interest questions" surrounding Joe and Hunter Biden's activities in Ukraine. This claim is not only false but bizarre, casting Vogel's work (in his own esteem) as more consequential than the whistleblower complaint — a far more thorough account, with better sourcing — which unlike Vogel's report alludes to the bribery and extortion scheme in which Trump and Giuliani engaged, with the support of senior diplomats. Vogel's report, which Bloomberg contradicted less than a week later, did not launch an impeachment inquiry, and it wasn't for lack of an audience.

Vogel's co-author on that May 1 Times article, Ukrainian journalist Iuliia Mendel, was hired the following month as a spokesperson for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. I haven't seen Vogel acknowledge this fact publicly, though it's possible he has.

In defense of his widely criticized Ukraine reporting, Vogel has said, "I am breaking news, not 'takes.'" This too is an example of "fairness bias." Reporting is nothing but an endless series of takes, decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. Deadlines and commitments. What to leave in, what to leave out. (As the poets say.) The whole point is to inform readers of the truth. To elaborate on this specific example, reporters must contextualize the world according to Rudy Giuliani within the world according to reality.

Vogel has written valuable articles across his career. But in the above regard he has recently failed. Take this MSNBC interview from September, in which Vogel says that "the way that Rudy is inserting himself into it is both not helpful I think to Rudy and to Trump," suggesting — as I read this — that if only Giuliani would stop interfering with the media, it would make it easier for Vogel to present Giuliani's argument.

But perhaps — hear me out — the fact that, in Vogel's own words, Giuliani is "making it appear as if this is just a partisan hit job" informs a larger truth: Giuliani's narrative is overblown and vulnerable to manipulation. In that MSNBC interview, however, Vogel implies that he not only finds this complicating fact inconvenient, he wishes it weren't there.

There's no evidence that Joe Biden or Hunter Biden engaged in any wrongdoing in Ukraine, though the optics of the then-vice president's son accepting a seat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, while his father led U.S. policy efforts there, are extremely poor and invite all sorts of speculation. There is no evidence to support Giuliani's (or Trump's, or whoever's) allegations that the Ukrainian government interfered on Hillary Clinton's behalf in the 2016 election.

At the very least, Vogel doesn't seem concerned that the narrow scope of his reporting makes it ideal for political weaponization on behalf of Trump and his allies, and their blatant and obvious attempts to undermine Biden's character and campaign.

I have my own reporting to add that might provide helpful context for journalists. In an early October phone conversation, Rudy Giuliani told me his primary motivation for pushing the Biden story in the media was purely political — specifically, it was an attempt to persuade the Department of Justice to open an investigation into Biden.

"I was yelling it and screaming it, so they would arise from their somnolent behavior," he said. Further, he told me, he had explicitly designed his publicity pressure campaign to shield himself and President Trump from any possible legal or political consequences they'd face if those orders came directly from the White House.

"If I gave it — if I, if I ran into Bill Barr and said, 'Investigate it,' then it would be a setup," Giuliani said.

This was, you might say, Giuliani's version of Trump's infamous 2016 request to Russia — his "DOJ, if you're listening" moment. Giuliani, however, was indeed mightily rewarded by our press.

Vogel was right about what I got wrong

In our Sunday call, Vogel did the very real favor of correcting me. I had cited a Daily Mail report that included a photograph of Gucciardo with Giuliani and Parnas, captioned as being taken in Ukraine in November 2018. Vogel informed me the picture was taken in Queens. That sounds so obvious as to be absurd, but it's next to impossible to tell from the photo. I thanked him and asked my editor to make a correction, which he did. (I reached out to the Daily Mail, and they changed their caption too. The Daily Mail could not immediately confirm whether anyone at the New York Times had also contacted them about the error.)

On Tuesday, Vogel told me in a text that the change Salon had made actually demanded more: "Like, run an actual correction, not just change the text." When I told him that had been my editor's call, and that the primary responsibility belonged to the Daily Mail, Vogel said, "Way to take responsibility." He then initiated the eight-minute call.

But here's one thing Vogel was right about, and which I got wrong on my own: When I asked my editor to make the change, I confused Giuliani's November 2017 trip to Kharkiv with 2018, and told him the wrong year. Vogel pointed out the error, I thanked him, and my editor made the change.

Again, Gucciardo's lawyer told me that Gucciardo has never been to Ukraine.

So that's what I got wrong and that's what we did about it. In the interest of transparency, I should further explain that many of the links to social-media evidence supporting my claims in last week's article have subsequently been deleted, edited or taken private. We will replace those links with archived screenshots.

There is still the question of the Times' unsourced, uncited and apparently unverified claim about the Trump hotel meeting, which Vogel told me both before and after my report was published that he had got right. It's possible that LaMagna's denial is inaccurate and that the Times has evidence to support Vogel's reporting. That does not absolve the paper of record from publishing a central claim of fact without sourcing or support. It also does not absolve them from the responsibility of making clear they reached out to Gucciardo for comment about the chain of events, if indeed they did. As stated earlier, I relayed LaMagna's information to Vogel several times over the course of the past week. He has not replied.

I also told Vogel I was going to write about this whole thing. After all, his claim is my claim, too. This is my correction.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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