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.”
Later that month, Solomon returned from vacation to learn that the board had come out in support of the tuna series—and to find a $15,000 bonus check on his chair. He was livid. “It was hush money,” Solomon told me. “They were trying to buy my silence.” Buzenberg calls these allegations “preposterous and insulting” and says Solomon was given the bonus because he was carrying two titles—executive editor and chief digital officer—without extra pay. Around this time, Solomon also learned that the tuna series had been
nominated submitted for a Pulitzer Prize, and he threatened to inform the Pulitzer board about the alleged ethical blemishes unless it was withdrawn, which it was. Solomon then began pushing Buzenberg to rewrite the Center’s ethics rules, and fire or admonish several ICIJ reporters, including Willson. Buzenberg refused.
All the while, the Center plowed ahead with the new business model. A beta version of the new website, known as iWatch, was launched in April 2011. As expected, traffic surged; by the middle of that year, the number of monthly pageviews on the Center’s website climbed from around 300,000 to 1.13 million.*
On the journalism front, the shift toward the daily model brought both pluses and minuses. The Center’s coverage, which in the past had sometimes been plodding and in the weeds, became snappier and more timely. Occasionally, it broke news on fast-moving crises, like the Japanese nuclear meltdown. It was the Center (in partnership with ABC News) that broke the story at the heart of the Solyndra affair.