Scott McInnis, Rolly Fischer and the more dubious part of the Denver Post scoop

rolly fischer on channel 7.JPG
Rolly Fischer on Channel 7.
For the past three days, the Denver Post has run big stories about guv wannabe Scott McInnis. Day one's offering, about apparent McInnis plagiarism in lousy water articles, was a slam dunk -- and likely dooms his campaign, with even the likes of Dan Caplis turning against him. But day two's effort hasn't held up nearly as well, leading to a curious day three hybrid combining an exclusive TV interview with McInnis researcher Rolly Fischer and a defense of the previous day's piece.

The Post's second McInnis piece, "Storm Over Possible Plagiarism Writings Escalates," revealed that a "review of McInnis' floor speeches and columns published during his congressional career found striking similarities between a 1995 speech and 1994 column by McInnis and a previously published Op-Ed in the Washington Post" by authors Richard V. Allen and Daryl M. Plunk."

Clearly, this alleged crime wasn't as serious as the one involving McInnis's water articles, since he'd been paid $300,000 to pen his "musings" by the Hasan Family Foundation -- and the size of that sum suggests that the assignment was a stealth political favor. Moreover, McInnis compounded this situation by dismissing the controversy as a "non-issue" even as he cast blame on a researcher, Rolly Fischer, for borrowing an essay by Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs without attribution.

Even so, the new accusation kept the story going by seeming to establish a plagiarism pattern for which the McInnis camp had no immediate explanation: The day-two Post piece noted that "Sean Duffy, spokesman for the McInnis campaign, declined to comment on the new findings Tuesday afternoon, saying that the two hours he had to look into the Post's comparison was not enough time to discover how the similarities may have occurred."

By the following evening, the McInnis campaign had an explanation. In a release entitled "Denver Post Exposed" that's on view below, campaign manager Nancy Hopper shares an e-mail exchange between op-ed co-author Plunk and Post political editor Chuck Hubbard that occurred after the day-two-article's publication. In his note, Plunk wrote that during the time period in question, he'd been working for a think tank and had provided McInnis material with permission to use it as he saw fit. In his opinion, then, no plagiarism had taken place in this instance -- and he criticized the Post for not checking with him in advance before publishing false assertions.

Cut to this morning's McInnis salvo, "McInnis Lying, Says Engineer." The article leads with an amazing interview between researcher Fischer, who's in his early eighties, and Channel 7's John Ferrugia. In it, Fischer says he thought he was doing research McInnis might draw from in a 2008 Senate run. According to him, he never knew the material would be published. Moreover, he says the McInnis camp tried to get him to sign a letter taking responsibility for accidentally committing plagiarism. The letter reads:

Dear Scott:

I am writing to express my sincere apology for failing to provide appropriate attribution for the research I provided for the water articles we collaborated on. While my mistake was not intentional, it is nonetheless clear that this material needed footnotes.

This mistake was solely my own and I recognize that my work fell short of the expectations you had when you included me in this project.

Again, please accept my deep apology.

Sincerely,

Rolly Fischer

It's shocking stuff that makes McInnis look even worse than he already did -- as does the visual image of Fischer tottering around on a cane as he tries to figure out how he wound up under a bus. But after this info, the Post article delved into a debate over the Plunk matter with this clunky, out-of-the-blue transitional paragraph:

Meanwhile, an author of a Washington Post op-ed whose words were later used without attribution in both an op-ed and a floor speech by then-Congressman McInnis said Wednesday that he gave lawmaker permission to present his work as if it were McInnis' own, and two experts split on whether that constitutes plagiarism.

After some back and forth about whether any actual plagiarism took place, Post editor Greg Moore defends the paper's action with a statement that reads:

"It is an old ploy to blame the media for bad news. Allegedly having permission to copy someone else's words or thoughts doesn't necessarily mean that's OK, but that is for others to decide.

"In any case we would have included that in our story this morning had we been told that. None of that, however, would have changed our decision to publish the story or its general focus. As we continue our reporting, the McInnis campaign will continue to be solicited for comment pre-publication. I hope they take advantage of that."

How's the McInnis campaign feel about that? At this writing, spokesman Sean Duffy hasn't responded to a request for comment; if and when he does, we'll update this post. But it's easy to imagine that McInnis supporters would see the placement of this information after more damaging comments from Fischer as a way of burying and then trying to excuse away a Post mistake.

Moore's take on that possible criticism? Via e-mail, he writes:

I guess you'd be writing that our original story was wrong if the McInnis campaign had gotten old Rolly to sign the statement. The Rolly interview was far bigger than Duffy's effort to deflect the op-ed copying story. Before that happened, that was the lead of our paper. We didn't make a mistake. The campaign did in not figuring out what to say in the six to eight hours before we published.

Probably so -- but the Post would have been much better off publishing the Plunk rebuttal in a separate article, rather than affixing it to a different one, thereby eliminating the possibility of a moderately embarrassing headline. In that way, the paper would have taken greater responsibility for questions about its coverage in a way that McInnis hasn't done when it comes to the plagiarism accusations.

Look below to see the McInnis campaign release, as well as an MSNBC Hardball segment from yesterday that rips McInnis for both alleged cases of plagiarism:

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