Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Media Reaction to Sovereign Deed Story

The investigative reporting that we did at the Michigan Messenger last week on Barrett Moore and Sovereign Deed has gotten a fair amount of attention, but the story is still unfolding. The local paper for the area where the company is looking to set up, the Petoskey News-Review, did a story on it that I think illustrates perfectly the difference between the kind of journalism we are doing at the Messenger and the sort of thing the mainstream media does.

The report was done by their reporter, Fred Gray, who appears to believe what far too many journalists believe, that “balance” means reporting what both sides say without bothering to point out any false statements made by either side. He starts by merely repeating Barrett Moore’s spin that our report was nothing but “personal attacks”:

Moore told the News-Review that two articles published by Michigan Messenger.com are “full of erroneous information,” and added: “There’s always a semblance of truth whenever allegations are made, but these have been taken out of context and mischaracterized.”

He refused to answer specific questions about his background that have been raised by the articles, saying “It’s with the lawyers.”

But he said, “It’s clear they have an agenda. What they should be talking about is that Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Right now, everyone’s fiddling, and while we’re trying to create jobs, they’re making it personal. To what end?”

Gray reports this non-answer to the evidence we documented in our report without any comment at all, and apparently without bothering to ask any follow up questions. Nothing we said in our report was personal in the least; every single charge is directly related to representations made by Moore himself in promoting Sovereign Deed and his role in that company. The Sovereign Deed website promotes Moore’s expertise by reference to his background as a military officer:

Mr. Moore served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, specializing in issues related to the non-proliferation of biological weapons and related weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Is it a “personal attack” to point out that this is a lie, that in fact he never completed his ROTC program, never went to basic training and never served in any branch of the military at all, much less being an “intelligence officer” with a specialization in non-proliferation of WMDs? Of course not. It is a substantive issue directly related to Moore’s competence and honesty, and one that he himself made an issue.

The funny thing is that Moore could easily disprove our allegations in this regard. All he has to do is produce his DD-214. Every soldier is issued one upon discharge, and if he managed to lose his there is an easy process for requesting a copy from the National Personnel Records Center. Since Gray does not mention that in his report, one can only surmise that he didn’t think to ask him about it.

Rather than show the obvious evidence that would totally discredit our most serious allegation against him, Moore offered the transparently flimsy excuse that his records could not be found because he did top secret intelligence work, so it’s not kept with the usual records (his attorney said this to us in an email). That provoked a familiar “I hear that all the time” answer from our contact at the Army Human Resources Command.

The fact is that Moore could easily and immediately disprove our most serious allegation and utterly destroy our credibility by merely releasing a document that every single soldier gets when he’s discharged. The fact that he hasn’t done so speaks volumes and strongly suggests that he hasn’t done so because he can’t. He can’t because he doesn’t have one. He doesn’t have one because he never served in anything other than the ROTC in college.

Local officials who have been helping Sovereign Deed throughout this process didn’t fare much better than Moore in responding to our investigation. Emmett County controller Lyn Johnson, for example, offered two arguments for why he doubts the credibility of our story, one of them silly and the other outright false. Here’s the silly one:

Asked to comment on the MichiganMessenger.com story, Johnson said he had two areas of concern that undermined its credibility for him:

— A confidentiality agreement. The story said: “Elected officials in Pellston have declined to answer the questions, citing confidentiality agreements with the firm.” Johnson said there was a single confidentiality agreement, and that was with county board chair Jim Tamlyn. Johnson said the agreement was not unusual for a start-up firm approaching the county at the initial stages of inquiry. He said that in any case, the agreement was in force only during the first few weeks of last year, and after that, the county has shared the details of the project as it learned them with the local media. The News-Review did receive such information in this time frame and reported on the project then.

After the confidentiality agreement ended last February, the county arranged an hour-long interview with the News-Review the same day with Moore and Sovereign Deed chief attorney Glenn Collins in which all questions were addressed.

His answer has nothing at all to do with the truth of the statement he quotes from us. Whether there actually was a confidentiality agreement that would prevent local officials from talking to us has nothing to do with whether local officials declined to speak to us using that as an excuse. In fact, we got that rationalization from several local officials that we contacted for the article. The fact that they were lying undermines their credibility, not ours.

Here’s the outright false one:

– Tax abatement. The story said the State of Michigan had granted $10 million in tax abatements for Moore to establish a base of operations in Pellston. In fact, Johnson said, the state had enacted enabling legislation which gave townships the ability to abate taxes at the request of firms seeking to locate in them. In this case, Sovereign Deed has not yet made a request.

“So of the things I know about, if they aren’t correct, can I really rely on everything else that’s said there?” Johnson asked.

This is a flat out lie. Our story said nothing of the kind. Here is the actual quote from our story:

Moore, fired by Triple Canopy in 2004, has launched a new private security firm called Sovereign Deed. He has parlayed his Triple Canopy success into political influence, persuading Republican and Democratic state officials to rewrite state law so that Sovereign Deed can receive $10 million in tax abatements and other incentives to establish a “national response center” for its private disaster relief business in northern Michigan.

And every word of that is true. The Michigan Legislature unanimously passed, and Gov. Granholm signed, a bill that applied only to Sovereign Deed that makes them eligible for a set of tax benefits for which their project did not previously qualify. That bill was SB 400. We did not say those benefits had been applied for, nor did we say they had already been granted; we said exactly what Johnson said, that the state had enacted legislation that enabled them to get them.

Again, the obvious question: why didn’t the reporter point that out? All he had to do was look at our article, which he had linked to in his article, and see if it actually said what Johnson claimed it said. He apparently did not bother, or perhaps he didn’t feel it was relevant that the two reasons offered to undermine the credibility of our story did nothing of the sort.

Lastly, there is the irrelevant response that the article cited in relation to our argument about a lack of due diligence in vetting companies that apply for incentives:

The MichiganMessenger.com article and the opposition group charge public officials with lack of “due diligence” in dealing with Sovereign Deed, and submit that proper investigation would have uncovered allegations that are only now coming to light through the work of investigative journalists.

But Andy Hayes, executive director of the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance which has had a major role in drafting grant applications on behalf of Sovereign Deed, scoffs at the charge.

“Keep in mind, no one has yet applied for grants on behalf of Sovereign Deed to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation or the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.”

He said the NLEA’s role in the process is different from others’.

“We work with state and federal agencies in identifying incentives for improving the public infrastructure, if a company will create jobs,” he said.

He said that when the applications are ready to be submitted, the thorough due diligence will be done.

“That’s the way it works,” he said. “And we all knew that was coming.”

He said everything is contingent on whether a company does what it says it will.

“I think Emmet County did the right thing in going after the jobs. I can’t fault anybody at all. Did we learn things along the way? Absolutely. But we all jumped in and worked together and that’s they way it ought to be,” Hayes said.

“The other important thing is that any time we leverage a job to get money from the state and feds for infrastructure, the actual grant goes to the unit of government for the infrastructure, not to the applicant.

“Say you get so many dollars from the state, based on a company’s promise to produce jobs. If they don’t produce, the company has to pay that money back.

“And abatement comes only after the company invests in the local unit of government. Townships could put it in the contract with companies, that if you pull out prematurely, you have to put back that portion you have abated.”

But this is really not responsive to the argument we made. Of course Emmet county should go after jobs, and tax abatements may or may not be a good way of doing that, but there still should be some means of vetting whether a given company should be given those benefits. And that process has to look at more than what a company promises.

Sovereign Deed is a brand new company with no track record, so in order to find out if they have a credible track record that suggests that they are worth taking that chance on, you have to investigate the company’s owners. Moore presents himself as an incredibly successful businessman with a remarkable track record of success. Is that true? No. On the Sovereign Deed website he trades on his success with Triple Canopy as evidence of his competence in this area:

Prior to Sovereign Deed, Mr. Moore’s venture, Triple Canopy, commercialized the market for specialized military services. Within a few short years, it generated revenues of $500 million. As the founding CEO and largest shareholder, Mr. Moore and his team were instrumental in positioning Triple Canopy at the forefront of what has become a profitable $4 billion sub-segment of the Private Military Contractor (PMC) market. Triple Canopy assembled the largest group of former Special Operations personnel from the U.S. Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (Delta Force) to work for a private enterprise. The talented team Mr. Moore assembled quickly became a leading provider of services to government agencies, including the Department of State, the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Today, Triple Canopy continues to excel under the leadership of the individuals Mr. Moore recruited to the organization. In the fall of 2005, Mr. Moore sold his interests in the Triple Canopy group of companies.

There is hardly a word of this that is true, and what little is true is cleverly worded to make it appear that he gets the credit for what others likely did. Triple Canopy was founded by Tom Katis and Matthew Mann, men who actually did serve in the military (Katis as a green beret with a Bronze Star, Mann with Delta Force). They remain co-chairmen of Triple Canopy to this day.

Moore was brought in as CEO to run the business side of things so that Katis and Mann could take care of the things they had expertise in, recruitment and training of their former colleagues in the special forces. And while Moore likes to claim all the success of Triple Canopy as being to his credit, the fact is that he was only around for a few months at the start.

They started the company in September 2003 and fired Moore as CEO in April 2004, just as they were getting started. On May 7, 2004, Triple Canopy filed a lawsuit against Moore for a variety of civil offenses. That “leadership” of Triple Canopy that “continues to excel” fired Moore and filed suit against him to get rid of him; it’s a little odd to claim credit for their success.

So where was the due diligence? The state legislature changed state law on a unanimous vote specifically to allow tax benefits to be given to this company, and apparently no one even bothered to do a Nexis/Lexis search to see all the lawsuits that have been filed against Moore, all of which are a matter of public record, or his bankruptcy filing. These are kind of important things when deciding whether to give tax breaks to a new company, wouldn’t you think?

This situation shows a lack of transparency, a lack of due diligence and a lack of accountability at multiple levels. There is much more yet to come on this issue. But the behavior of the political leadership and the media so far has been lazy, apathetic and contrary to their moral and legal obligations to seek and report the truth.

Disclaimer: I speak only for myself here, not for the Michigan Messenger or the Center for Independent Media. That’s why I’m publishing it here rather than at the Messenger. I also do not speak for ScienceBlogs or for Seed Magazine. I alone bear sole responsibility for the content of this post.