A whistleblower in the Bolton nomination learns the power of the blogosphere
On a warm, windy morning last week, in front of a neighborhood coffee shop, Melody Townsel asks herself the question that hangs in the air. "Would I do it again?" she says. She doesn't know the answer; she's leaning, at this moment, toward a big, fat no. She says it with a rueful smile, though any smile at this point is a far cry from the way she felt the day before, when she answered the question "How are you doing?" with a simple "Suicidal."
A month ago you did not know the name Melody Townsel, and a month from now you probably will have forgotten it, unless you are family or a friend or a client of the public relations woman whose business shrinks a little more each week. But now, her name shows up regularly in newspapers and weekly magazines and on Web sites devoted to the bickering of political partisans. There she is in last week's Time, her picture next to that of Colin Powell; there she is being mentioned on CNN and Fox News Channel. She's inescapable as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ponders her allegations that President Bush's nominee for United Nations ambassador, John Bolton, is a bully who, in the summer of 1994, put her "through hell."
Over the last three weeks, Townsel has become the target of Republican businessmen who charge she's lying and cannon fodder for right-wing bloggers who say much worse, because she sent the committee a letter urging its members "to consider blocking in committee" Bolton's nomination. It was her complaint that caused Republican Senator George Voinovich to claim "my conscience got the best of me" two weeks ago, causing a delay in a vote once considered a slam dunk. (There are 10 Republicans on the committee and eight Democrats, including Joseph Biden.) The vote is now scheduled to take place May 12.
All this began on April 8, when Townsel wrote to the committee about an incident she says occurred while she was working for a private contractor on a U.S. Agency for International Development mission in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic. It was her job in the summer of 1994 to sell the economic reformation of that country, creating TV programs and T-shirts and even comic books informing citizens how to use their new privatization coupons that, more or less, gave them ownership in the formerly Communist republic.
Townsel says she sent a letter to U.S. AID officials complaining about "months of incompetence" on the part of contractor International Business & Technical Consultants Inc. (IBTCI) and a substantial lack of funds that resulted in "armed threats by Kyrgyz contractors" to herself and her staff. She says within hours of her sending the note, IBTCI's attorney, John Bolton, began chasing her through the halls of a Russian hotel--"throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door and, generally, behaving like a madman." She claimed this went on for two weeks, during which time Bolton "routinely visited me...to pound on the door and shout threats." She says Bolton began telling her fellow workers that Townsel was under federal investigation for misuse of funds and that she was bound for federal prison. Townsel says he also made "unconscionable comments about my weight, my wardrobe...and my sexuality, hinting that I was a lesbian (for the record, I'm not)."
Nothing came of Townsel's letter until a week later, when a friend asked if she could post it to the left-leaning Web site Daily Kos, where members of the Senate and a few journalists apparently read it. On April 15, Townsel got a call from both the Los Angeles Times and Brian McKeon, the Democratic counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The same day, Air America Radio called wanting an interview; Townsel says she declined to talk at first. "I thought, 'I really can't talk to them, because if I do, I'm gonna find myself labeled as some liberal whack job,' and that didn't make sense to me." Then host Sam Seder reached her on her cell phone while he was on the air, and she wound up giving an interview.
It would be the first of many Townsel was to give, because on April 16, Biden e-mailed Townsel's letter to the entire Washington press corps, and it contained all of her contact information. On April 17, the first two stories about Townsel's allegations appeared, in the L.A. Times and The New York Times.
"No one had asked my permission to release the memo," Townsel says. "It just showed up. And then the phones literally exploded, every phone that I had. I made the decision early on that I was really just trying to tell my story and let the Senate consider it for what it was, and so I didn't do any TV at all. When print reporters would call with parts of the story, I would talk to them, but I didn't try to be a big glory hound. I didn't call any reporters. But instantly, the company that had hired Mr. Bolton put out letters of rebuttal, and they said some extraordinarily nasty things."
On April 18, IBTCI President Jayant Kalotra sent a letter to the committee's chairman, Republican Senator Richard Lugar, insisting it was Townsel who was "belligerent" toward her subordinates and that she had "limited contact" with Bolton. He also accused her of attempting "unsuccessfully to charge the U.S. government for disallowable costs" and described Bolton as "intelligent, hard working, loyal and highly ethical." Townsel says Kalotra's charges "couldn't be further from the truth" and that he's merely watching his own back, since Kalotra was the initial target of her claims in 1994.
Eventually, others went before the committee to complain about Bolton's behavior, most notably former State Department official Carl W. Ford Jr., who called Bolton "a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy" and "a serial bully." Colin Powell told at least two Republican senators that Bolton "had problems" with anyone who disagreed with him and cautioned them against pushing through Bolton's nomination. And both Time magazine and The Toronto Star found witnesses who could corroborate some of Townsel's story.
That didn't stop Rush Limbaugh from going on his radio show and Web site and calling Townsel a liar. It didn't stop the blogs from dismissing her claims as those of nothing more than a liberal shill doing the bidding of her party, nor The Wall Street Journal from insisting, as it did on April 21, that even if Townsel's allegations were true, "if raising your voice and pounding on doors is disqualifying for public service, half of the Senate would have to resign."
The blogs, especially, have used Townsel's past to discredit her story. They've gone back and found a handful of Dallas Morning News stories in which she's been mentioned, since 1994, and tried to make it appear as though she's a publicity hound. Nothing's been more picked-over than a June 2004 story about Mothers Opposing Bush, in which she said she joined because "we have a lot of moms who are concerned about everything from the deficit to air quality, particularly in North Texas." Her comment has turned into her being the leader of MOB, and an "anti-Bush partisan," wrote the Journal.
"I've got to say that at the end of this, I bow to the power of the blogosphere," Townsel says. "It's incredible. The mainstream media's interesting and influential, but the blogs are where a lot of the debate occurs now. Instantly, anything the other side said about me was picked up as the truth, and I became a serial partisan whining complainer."
But on April 25, the day she gave her Senate testimony by telephone, Townsel says, she was contacted by "someone who identified himself as being with a Christian newspaper" who wanted to know about allegations of plagiarism brought against her 22 years ago, when she was at her college newspaper. Townsel does not recall the name of the reporter or the paper, but nonetheless she outed herself in a letter posted to Daily Kos, in which she wrote, "Republicans have dredged up an unfortunate chapter of my life and, clearly, are about to announce it to the world."
Her letter quickly spread across the Web. The following day, blogs such as LibertyPost.org and ClassicalValues.com picked up on the admission and used it to beat Townsel over the head once more. One contributor to LibertyPost.org wrote that Townsel "can't keep her own big mouth shut and this rat-derived vendetta against Bolton starts to take on the look and feel of the Clarence Thomas hearings."
Ultimately, what the bloggers don't mention is the toll exacted upon the whistleblower. The first time she tried to warn superiors about wrongdoing at the top, she says, they sicced John Bolton on her. The second time, the bloggers and right-wing columnists and Republican politicians and powerbrokers came after her. Worse, she says, she has lost two clients over this. "In the business of PR, image is all," she says. "And they want somebody who isn't the story." For the moment, Townsel worries less about what people say about her than how she will pay the bills this year.
"As I sit here today, yes, I think I would do it again," she says. "I still feel very much that I did my duty. That's my heart talking. My head's saying, 'Damn, it's cost me a lot of money.' I don't know. I think you've gotta live your life in a way that you stand by your convictions, and I think I've done that here." --Robert Wilonsky
UTD Orders Investigation of Waterview
The president of the University of Texas at Dallas will put together a commission to examine Dallas Observer findings of poor living conditions and inadequate security at the university's only student housing.
In an April 29 letter to students and faculty, UTD President Franklyn Jenifer said the panel will evaluate the 1,237-unit Waterview Park apartments and make recommendations to correct any problems found. The letter followed publication of "The Dorm From Hell," an April 28 Observer cover story detailing numerous problems at Waterview, including several sexual assaults for which UTD failed to inform students.
Jenifer, who will retire soon after 11 years as president, said the article raised questions that cannot be ignored. "The Observer piece strikes at the very heart of a number of 'student life' issues that all of us here at UTD should care deeply about--everything from crime and personal safety to alleged health hazards to reportedly not being able to get repairs implemented in a timely manner," he wrote. Jenifer said Dr. David Daniel, his successor, has endorsed the idea of appointing an investigative panel.
On Tuesday at 10 a.m., about 50 Waterview residents participated in a sit-in at the management office of the complex to protest conditions. Waterview is managed by FirstWorthing, a private company. One of those present was Laura Rashedi, former Student Government Association president. "We want residents to know the reality of the way we live, and we want it to change, and we will do whatever it takes to get things changed," she said. If there is no change, she said, "the next step would be to do this during freshman lease signings."
Asked for comment on the sit-in, UTD spokeswoman Jenni Huffenberger said, "It's needed and important that students be able to sit in and air their grievances...I think there will be changes in terms of maintenance issues and making students feel more safe in the environment."
Many residents say life at Waterview, the nation's largest private dorm, is a nightmare of black mold, broken toilets and leaking ceilings. In interviews with the Observer, UTD officials painted an entirely different picture. They said crime is not a problem and that they are proud of conditions and maintenance. Robert Lovitt, UTD's senior vice president of business affairs, called Waterview "one of the best success stories in the United States." Lovitt, who has overseen Waterview from the beginning--its first residents moved in in 1989--will retire at the end of this month.
Robert K. Utley III, the Dallas developer who built and still manages Waterview, told the Observer the complex has provided his family with $10 million in profits and will generate tens of millions of dollars in additional profits for UTD over the next 25 years. Utley said security and maintenance have long been inadequate, but he blamed the international students' way of life for creating many of the problems at Waterview. "Because a lot of the foreign students cook fish and curry, it's embedded in the walls," he said. "We have to rip the carpet out at turnover."
Jenifer described Utley's comments as "insensitive at best."
"Mr. Utley certainly was not speaking for me or any member of the UTD administration in making such regrettable remarks," Jenifer wrote in his letter.
Jenifer said the head of the investigative commission will have no direct connection to Waterview or the UTD Police Department. The other members will include faculty members, students and staffers. Jenifer promised to appoint the panel within a week and said Dr. Daniel wants a preliminary report by the end of June. --Kelsey Guy
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.