Other members of Kaplan’s team also raised doubts, including ICIJ staff writer Kate Willson, who, according to internal Center emails, confronted Solomon about his potential financial interest in the business plan. In the end, the Center chose not to have Solomon’s firm handle advertising. Solomon says he never actually wanted the business—that Buzenberg offered him the account to try to entice him to stay, but that he declined because he found the arrangement “unseemly.” Buzenberg, on the other hand, says the deal was something Solomon was pushing, but that he and the board opposed it, citing “a conflict of interest.”
In early November of 2010, Solomon was promoted yet again, this time to executive editor. The same week, a new BBC documentary based on reporting by Kaplan’s team was screened at the offices of Pew Charitable Trusts. It was the kind of work the Center had built its name on—a seven-month cross-border investigation that exposed a multi-billion-dollar black market in bluefin tuna. This trend, fueled by illegal overfishing, was pushing the species toward collapse and upending ocean ecosystems. The documentary also revealed that the regulatory scheme created to tackle the problem was full of holes. In one scene, Willson, the lead project reporter, was shown sitting in a darkened room trolling through a largely blank International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) database. She explained that roughly 80 percent of the files are so riddled with gaps that it’s impossible to tell whether the fish were caught legally.
The day after the showing, Solomon began raising questions about the legality of accessing the ICCAT database without authorization, and the role of a paid consultant who had been quoted in the film. Kaplan argues this was simply Solomon’s way of retaliating. “He was clearly trying to discredit us because of the questions we had raised about the business plan,” he says. Buzenberg tried to settle the dispute by having Bill Kovach, a former Washington bureau chief for The New York Times and longtime Center board member, look into the matter. Kovach found that the reporting was “ethical, sound, and fully in the public interest.”
But Solomon wasn’t satisfied that the legal questions had been answered. So he went over Buzenberg’s head—directly to the chair of the board. The board, in turn, hired the media law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz to investigate how Kaplan’s team got the database password and whether using it broke any laws. After this, the simmering tension between Solomon and Kaplan burgeoned into full-scale warfare, and fierce shouting matches began erupting in the newsroom. As Solomon puts it, “Everything went nuclear.”
By late December, the outside lawyers completed their investigation. What they found, according to internal Center documents, was that the reporters had initially gotten the password—along with a downloaded version of the database—from the paid consultant who appeared in the documentary, a Spanish fishing-industry analyst named Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi. Solomon seized on this as proof that Kaplan’s team had resorted to checkbook journalism. “We hacked into a government database with a password we paid for,” he told me. “You can’t do that and call yourself the Center for Public Integrity.” But the reality is not so black and white. Mielgo, who had initially been an unpaid source, was only brought on as a consultant several months after the password changed hands. Obviously, putting a former source on payroll raises questions about motives. But the reporters on the team gave a reasonable explanation for this move: They had relied heavily on Mielgo to help unravel the political and technical complexities of the tuna-fishing industry and guide them to sources in hard-to-penetrate countries like Libya. At some point, it became clear that he was spending a substantial amount of his time responding to their queries.
As for the legality of using the password to access data, the lawyers concluded that, in theory, a prosecutor might argue it violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But whether it actually did was open to debate. And, in any case, it was highly unlikely that charges would ever be brought.
At this point, the board was apparently satisfied that Kaplan’s team hadn’t made any flagrant missteps. In January 2011, it issued a statement saying, “The board recognizes the outstanding reporting done by ICIJ members: the quality of the reporting, including the bluefin tuna series, remains above question and beyond doubt.” Kaplan, meanwhile, stepped down. As he explained in a memo to the board, he didn’t feel he could go on reporting to Solomon, “given his reprehensible conduct toward ICIJ staff.”