NEW YORK -- On the night of Oct. 8, The Washington Post reported that White House aides had received information in April 2012 “suggesting that a prostitute was an overnight guest” of a presidential advance team staffer in Cartagena, Colombia, the site of the Secret Service prostitution scandal.
The White House quickly dismissed the Post’s story as old news and noted that The Associated Press reported in September 2012 that investigators had “uncovered a hotel record suggesting” an advance team staffer had hired a prostitute in Cartagena. The White House determined at the time that the hotel record wasn’t accurate and cleared the accused of any wrongdoing, according to the AP.
The same allegation surfaced in May 2013, when CBS News reported that a Secret Service agent involved in the scandal said that there was evidence that “a volunteer White House staffer” had brought a prostitute to his room and suggested the staffer was given preferential treatment when it came to investigating the matter.
But despite the White House's attempt to downplay the Oct. 8 story, the Post did reveal something new about the former advance staffer: his name.
Jonathan Dach, who at the time was a 25-year-old Yale University law student volunteering at The White House and now works under contract for the State Department, has long denied hiring a prostitute in Cartagena. And the Post, even after laying out additional pieces of evidence allegedly implicating Dach, acknowledged it “remains unclear” whether he “was involved in wrongdoing.”
So why then did the Post decide to name him now, two and a half years after it broke the news of the scandal and 9 months since reporters began communicating with his attorney? Letters obtained by The Huffington Post show the attorney, Richard Sauber, rebutted the claims and offered countervailing evidence in letters sent to top Post editors. The decision to publish Dach's identity regardless raises questions about the threshold news organizations must meet when revealing the name of someone accused of lurid activity without independently confirming the claims.
The Post article relied heavily on information discovered by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general’s office that suggested Dach may have hired a prostitute. In addition to detailing hotel logs indicating a prostitute was registered at the hotel under his room number, The Post also published the claim of an unnamed Secret Service agent who apparently told investigators he'd seen a woman he "believed was a prostitute" with Dach that night, though the paper didn't note when and where the alleged encounter took place.
The "eyewitness" claim would likely be dismissed in court as circumstantial. The Post maintains that its article didn't attempt to prove one way or another whether Dach hired a prostitute. The story, clocking in at around 3,300 words, looked at the total breadth of the scandal, from the solicitation of prostitutes to the political pressures the administration allegedly applied to subsequent investigations.
"The story was about more than one individual," Marty Baron, the Post's executive editor, said in an email to The Huffington Post. "It shed light on the performance of the White House and senior officials in the aftermath of a major scandal; claims by Secret Service agents of inequitable treatment; conflict between the lead investigator and his superiors at the Department of Homeland Security, along with allegations of political motivations for excising information from his report; and tensions between the White House and Congress on the adequacy of the investigation."
Though The Post did not conclude that Dach hired a prostitute, it nevertheless crafted its story in a way that could give the impression of guilt or impropriety. In the letters, sent to Baron and managing editor Kevin Merida earlier this year, Sauber denied the allegations and expressed concern that the inclusion of Dach's name in a story on the prostitution scandal could significantly damage his professional future. Sauber wrote on Jan. 16 that the publication of the charge "will be devastating to this young man just as he embarks on his career after law school."
"It will hang over his head through the internet for the next 50 years," Sauber said. "It will affect his job prospects and his reputation forever. Moreover, he has vehemently denied the allegation at every turn and would do so under oath directly to the Post if it would have a material impact on your decision. There is, in my view, no compelling reason for the Post to take this step. We also believe the Post should have an affirmative obligation to investigate and affirm the allegations before it chooses to do such harm."
Carol Leonnig and David Nakamura, the Post reporters who wrote the Oct. 8 story, were copied on the correspondence, along with several Post editors and executives. Sauber met with the Post's editors after the initial letter to express his concerns in person, and in a March letter provided documentation he said contradicted the claims. But some of that documentation did not appear in the Post's story when it was first published online, and was only added later that night. Baron said the information was not put on the record by Dach family spokeswoman Amy Weiss until after the story was posted. Weiss told The Huffington Post she never told The Post the letters were off the record and expected them to be included in the article. Dach, through Weiss, declined to comment to The Huffington Post. Sauber could not be reached for comment.
The Post's coverage of the Secret Service scandal in 2012 and its more recent revelations of security lapses in the agency have been widely praised in media circles. Clearly the paper has expended significant resources covering the story, including sending reporters to Cartagena to investigate. Still, it's unclear what specific new information triggered the decision among editors to finally identify Dach last week.
Baron argued that the Post learned a lot of new details since communicating with Dach's attorney, telling The Huffington Post that his "reporters have used the period between the date of those letters and the date of publication to do an enormous amount of additional reporting."
"It is simply false to say that nothing new was learned subsequent to those letters," Baron said. "The documentation in the story is extensive and speaks for itself. The amount of time devoted to this story attests to the care and thoroughness of our work."
Baron also said The Post offered Dach "numerous opportunities -- over a long period of time -- to be interviewed, in person or on the phone" and he declined.
Indeed, Dach could have gone on the record to deny the allegations. But doing so would have tied his name to the claims in print, an outcome Sauber was clearly trying to avoid in his letters to the Post.
While Dach hasn't spoken publicly about the night in question, here's a closer look at the timeline and evidence revealed by the Post's reporting and Sauber's letters.
Dach arrived at the Hilton Cartagena at around 7 p.m. on April 3, 2012, after leaving New Haven, Connecticut, and traveling for 19 hours on three flights.
He left the hotel 10 minutes later in an embassy-supplied car with other White House advance team members and two embassy control officers. They went to dinner at a restaurant called Casa del Soccorro. Dach and his dinner companions returned to the hotel in the embassy cars at around 10:40 p.m. Eight minutes later, Dach texted a friend who had asked about his trip to Colombia: “it is the best I am exhausted,” he wrote.
Dach’s lawyer told the Post’s editors in his March 6 letter that he would provide “any documentation we have to support this timeline, and we also suggest that there are multiple sources who can confirm these events.” The Post didn't mention the text message in its initial story, but added that detail shortly after publication, once the family spokeswoman put it on the record.
The Hotel Logs
A woman arrived at the Hilton that night and was registered as an overnight guest to Dach’s room, number 513, at 12:02 a.m., according to the Post, which independently reviewed the hotel logs. While prostitution is legal in Cartagena, hotels require identification proving that the prostitute is not underage, and so the hotel attached a photocopy of the woman’s ID to Dach's room. The Post reported that investigators found that "guests must personally register their overnight visitors."
Additionally, the Post reported that "hotel staff members in Cartagena told federal investigators that they had determined Dach was one of three guests at the Hilton who had additional overnight guests registered to their rooms." The Post said it reviewed federal records identifying one of the three as "a White House travel-team member," and added that government officials privy to the un-redacted version of the records had confirmed Dach's name was on them.
Word of the hotel logs surfaced soon after the scandal. The AP reported over two years ago that "the White House review found that a guest, perhaps a prostitute, had signed in to visit the same room assigned to that volunteer member of Obama's team."
The Post's story goes into greater detail based on the later investigation, but there still isn't direct evidence presented that Dach himself called for the prostitute, or that she ultimately ended up in his room. There's also precedent for the White House's suggestion that a mix-up could have occurred. The Post acknowledged that at another Cartagena hotel, a “Secret Service agent was erroneously accused of bringing a prostitute to his room” after a woman was registered using his room number.
The Post reported that an agent told the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general's office that "he saw Dach with a woman he believed was a prostitute."
Dach's attorney has long objected to the Post's willingness to cite an anonymous agent, arguing in his January letter that the account "is particularly flimsy unless corroborating evidence exists." Sauber said that "it seems as if the Secret Service source isn't saying that he has any proof that the person he saw was an escort -- only that the person looked like one."
Sauber urged the Post reporters to determine what time the alleged sighting took place and whether other embassy personnel or White House advance staffers were present.
Presumably, security footage would be able to confirm whether Dach was with a woman that night, prostitute or not, and if the woman who signed in to his room ever arrived there. A Hilton spokesman declined to comment to The Huffington Post on the set-up of security cameras at the Cartagena hotel.
The Post reported that the inspector general’s office "found that hotel officials had waived a fee normally charged to guests staying overnight" and "Hilton Worldwide officials in Virginia said their records showed Dach 'was not charged for additional guest'" because he was a member of the Hilton Honors program.
Dach tried to personal obtain information about his records earlier this year.
On the afternoon of March 5, Dach emailed a Hilton representative to ask if there were “any additional notes” in his hotel record, such as “records of interactions with or requests made at the front desk,” apparently seeking to prove that he hadn't had a guest. About an hour later, a Hilton representative responded that there were no such records. (The Huffington Post has independently confirmed this exchange).
In the March 6 letter to the Post, Sauber said he was attaching a copy of Dach's email exchange with Hilton, "indicating that there is no notation whatsoever in his hotel guest file indicating anything, let alone an effort to have the late night guest fee waived.”
Sauber added that there was nothing in Dach’s Hilton Honors file “to support this allegation either” and provided Dach’s member number so the Post reporters could verify that information for themselves.
Like the text message Dach sent to his friend, the Post didn't mention the email exchange in its initial story, but added it in shortly after publication.
But not every line of inquiry made it into the final story. Both the Jan. 16 and March 6 letters note that Post reporters were looking into supposed minibar charges that would have suggested Dach had had an overnight guest.
The only charge on the bill was $8, spent on mineral water, according to Sauber's letters. He said the minibar charge was “hardly evidence to support a prostitute’s visit.”
Read the two letters Dach's attorney sent to The Washington Post:
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect The Post reported that hotel logs indicated the woman was registered to Dach's room as an overnight guest and not that she independently signed herself in. Also, Weiss's comment that she considered the letters to be on the record before The Post published its story has been added in the text above.