SS: That’s absolutely a questionable and arguable position. Somebody else might have decided to cut the dialogue off at a different level. But we felt as we progressed — and we monitored this closely every step of the way — that what we were learning about the mayor’s means of operation, his methodology, his grooming behavior, was significant. The initial identity was that of a 17-year-old high school student who in the course of the dialogue became 18 years old. And the significance there is that the mayor initiated the contact. The mayor scoped out the profile, and initiated the contact with somebody he believed was a 17-year-old high school student.
The conversation escalated sexually at the point in time when the mayor believed this young man turned 18, although he still believed him to be a high school student. And we felt that understanding that escalation was critical to understanding the story.
BM: There are two separate but related stories here: the alleged child molestation, and the mayor’s Internet-based relationships with young men. Regarding the latter, you cite two sources who are both anonymous, one of whom said he had consensual sex with the mayor. Was your decision to pursue this false identity angle partially because you had two sources who were not on the record and you wanted to make sure that you were correct?
SS: First of all, they’re certainly on the record. We’re withholding their names from publication to protect their privacy because they are 18 years old, and they are gay, and their families don’t know. The key source in this case is identifiable in the event of litigation. So it’s a qualified confidentiality. But no, that really wasn’t a factor. Even if we had them by name, the allegation was spurious enough that it required additional investigation. And because of the transitory nature of Internet communication, there was really no backup documentation to support the scenario they described. We did have, and have published online, some subsequent dialogues between one of our 18-year-olds and the mayor that occurred after the young man had talked to us. But that was not sufficient to tell us that yes, these events happened and that contextually they make sense, and that this person is, in fact, the mayor. All we have is this individual’s word. So we felt an absolutely compelling need to confirm this beyond a question of a doubt before publication. And it wouldn’t have made any difference if we’d been able to use this young man’s name or not.
BM: Have you ever had a situation like this, or is this the first time you’ve had — I know it wasn’t a reporter, but a representative of the paper falsely representing themselves?
SS: This is my thirty-fourth year as a professional journalist. I’ve been a senior editor since the mid-1980s. This is the first time in my career that I’ve been in a circumstance that involved this sort of scenario. As an editor, it’s the first time I’ve had to make this call.
BM: If it weren’t for the hypocrisy angle here — the mayor has apparently taken positions that supported anti-gay legislation — would you have gone about this differently? Because otherwise you’re looking at something here that I think a lot of people would find inappropriate, but some people would say, “You’re looking at a 54-year-old man having consensual sex with a legal teenager, which is obviously inappropriate, but is a personal matter.”
SS: Certainly, I understand that. We believe otherwise. The key issue here — and the mayor acknowledges this, though he draws a different conclusion than we do — but he acknowledges that he’s offered benefits to individuals he’s contacted online. He’s offered gifts, personal favors, introductions, scholarships, and, in the case of our fictional student, an internship in his own office, in return for sexual favors. In our view, that is a misuse of office. It transcends private conduct and moves it squarely into the arena of official conduct, and it warrants investigation and publication.