Graham Webster

High School Pentagon Sting

David McSwane had seen the military recruiters around town. He had seen them at the high school. And he knew that with recruitment rates down due to the Iraq war, they were working hard to attract new cadets. And it gave him an idea.

"I wanted to see how far they'd go to get another soldier," says McSwane, a reporter for the Westwind at Arvada West High School in Arvada, Colo. So he set up a sting investigation, posing as a high school dropout with a marijuana habit and went down to his local Colorado Army recruitment station to enlist.

McSwane, 17, knew he would have to document his conversations with the recruiters, so he taped the telephone conversations, enlisted his sister to pose as a proud sibling so she could photograph parts of the process, and asked a friend to operate a video camera across from a local head shop.

But how did McSwane get an recruiter to visit a head shop with him? Simple. The honor student, pretending to have a ganja habit he couldn't kick, went there to score a detoxifying kit the Army office claimed had helped two previous recruits pass drug tests, according to a taped phone conversation broadcast on local TV. McSwane told his recruiter he didn't know what the detox formula looked like, so the man agreed to go to the store with him.

Aside from his drug problem, McSwane said he had no high school diploma -- which at that time was true, as he graduated about two months later -- and that he had dropped out of high school. No problem, the recruiters told him. There are Web sites where anyone can order a diploma from a school they make up. "It can be like Faith Hill Baptist School or whatever you choose," one recruiter can be heard saying on one of the taped exchanges.

After the fruits of his investigation ran in the Westwind, there was a brief lull.

Then a Denver TV station picked up the story and ran with it, first airing McSwane's findings on April 28. Within a few days the boy's sting had made national headlines, and the U.S. Army froze recruiting operations nationwide for a day. (His two would-be recruiters were suspended.)

"It's been kind of cool to see a reaction from the Pentagon on a story done in a high school paper," the teen reporter says. He has appeared on local and national TV, and articles on his investigation have appeared in the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and The New York Times. One could understand if the school was a bit unaccustomed to all the media attention.

Rick Kaufman, a spokesman for Jefferson County Public Schools, said that after the initial report ran in Westwind, "the principal was very clear with David that the articles could not go any further into his undercover actions." Because the school paper is produced as part of a class, the principal reviews the paper prior to publication and has the power to spike any story.

McSwane says his scrupulous documentation has for the most part prevented naysayers from calling his investigation false. Still, he says, some have questioned the ethics involved in a deceptive operation like the one he orchestrated: "Any undercover investigation, you're going in there as a lie. And a lot of people don't like it."

In the fall McSwane plans to start on a journalism degree at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. But he's not taking it easy in the meantime. "I work retail graveyard shifts right now, because I've got to make money for college," he says, upon waking in the mid-afternoon. On his days off, he interns at the Arvada (Colo.) Press.

Like any good romance, McSwane's love of journalism started with something of an accident. "I guess I've always had a knack for writing," he says. "One day one of my English teachers just put me in newspaper class without my permission."

Fake Letters-to-the-Editor

Every now and then, letters to the editor at the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times don't get posted to the paper's Web site with the rest of the day's paper, after midnight. When Dan Hatfield, the paper's editorial-page editor, arrived at the office at his usual 5:30 or 6 a.m. on those mornings, he'd find out right away that some letters hadn't made it up, because there would an angry e-mail waiting in his inbox from Kyle Vallone.

Hatfield could never understand why Vallone cared so much.

Times reporter Sarah Krupp solved that riddle in a story published Sunday. After a months-long investigation, Krupp exposed Vallone as the man behind an unusually sophisticated letter-writing campaign.

"We have always found a few little things," Hatfield told E&P about previous instances of dishonest letter-writers. "We had found a number of other people who were not nearly as sophisticated as this one."

Vallone went further than anyone, making up letter writers, securing false phone numbers, and even faking accents on the phone to match his made up names, the Times reported.

After months of reporting, and one earlier confrontation, Krupp got Vallone to admit that he had worked on as many as 200 false letters sent to at least three Northern California newspapers: the Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Tri-Valley Herald.

Krupp started looking into the letters when she was covering a local election and some suspicious letters surfaced in the campaign.

"She started going through mountains of letters looking for the same phone numbers, and she found a few," Hatfield said. Once she tracked down the numbers in question, she managed to contact Vallone, who at first denied any knowledge of the letters.

After Krupp found out more about Vallone and solidified the reporting for a story, Vallone came forward, saying he had started writing false letters when he was working for a Republican political campaign in 1994. During that campaign, staffers would write letters to the editor, which volunteers would sign and send in their names.

The Times and the Chronicle both verify letters to the editor by phoning the writer and sometimes by other means, but Vallone used free voicemail services to create fictitious identities, the Times reported. Vallone could not be reached for comment by E&P.

As Krupp's investigation progressed, the Times developed and implemented new procedures that Hatfield wouldn't discuss publicly. And with the publication of Sunday's article, the Chronicle has also started an investigation into any letters it received.

"We are certainly looking into it to determine if we also were targets of his letters, as the article indicated," John Diaz, the Chronicle's editorial-page editor, told E&P Monday afternoon. "It's obviously an area of great interest and concern to us."

Regardless of the outcome of the inquiry, Diaz said, the episode has called letter-verification procedures into question, and the Chronicle will "take steps to reduce the chances of this happening again."

But both Diaz and Hatfield acknowledge that there is probably no way to completely prevent false letters.

"I think it's probably not possible to build an absolute firewall against somebody who is bound and determined," Diaz said. Even with new measures, Hatfield agreed, "there is no fail-safe that I know of to guarantee that no [falsified] letter ever will get in there."

Both the Times and the Chronicle had caught Vallone for previous deceptions. The Times had caught him writing in the name of a local former mayor, and the Chronicle nailed him for plagiarizing portions of a letter from The Wall Street Journal -- a violation the paper corrected in print.

The papers simply didn't know that the same man was writing under other names. Only after Krupp's meticulous reporting did the facts become clear.

"She's the star of this show," Hatfield said. "This has certainly gotten her noticed here."

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