AVMA seeks to deter news investigation

Alleges reporter misappropriated confidential documents

Published: January 21, 2010
By Edie Lau

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is threatening legal action against the Veterinary Information Network News Service to block the release of internal documents that it alleges a reporter obtained in violation of AVMA rules.

The documents are said to be “proprietary assets” of the AVMA Council on Education (COE), which conducts AVMA’s accreditation program for veterinary schools.

The dispute centers on an investigation by reporter and editor Jennifer Fiala, who has been researching the process by which the COE confers accreditation. Fiala said she was astonished by the charge because her inquiry has just begun.

“I have not spoken to anyone or had anyone speak to me on the record about it,” she said. “I don’t have any information. I’m in such an early stage on this story that receiving the letter was shocking.”

Fiala said a confidential source brought to her concerns about whether external politics are unduly influencing COE decisions. She said she has since spoken to other sources who share the concerns but has obtained no restricted documents in the process.

“Whether or not I have documents isn’t really the issue at hand,” she said. “The issue is that this membership organization did not pick up the phone to talk to me about their concerns, but rather, sent me a legal letter that seems designed to scare me off this story.”

In the letter, dated Jan. 13, Jed Mandel, an attorney representing the AVMA, wrote: “We have been advised that you may be in possession of confidential and proprietary information of the AVMA Council on Education ('COE’). We understand that this information includes a significant number of pages of internal COE documents or other material.

“Retaining confidentiality of this information ensures the integrity and objectivity of the accreditation process, which is critical to COE’s ongoing success and continuing operations.”

Mandel went on to say that the unauthorized acquisition or disclosure of such documents may violate laws protecting trade secrets and/or copyrights.

“Accordingly, we demand that you cease and desist and otherwise refrain from any disclosure or use of this information and immediately return to me all copies of the COE and AVMA documents and information in your possession or control,” he wrote.

Contacted by VIN News Service for this story, Mandel could not be more specific about the nature of the documents because, he said, “I don’t know what those documents are.”

He objected to the news service publishing an article about the letter. “We will be very unhappy and will take any action we need to if you write a story about the letter,” Mandel said.

However, Dr. David Granstrom, director of education and research for the AVMA, was receptive to a reporter’s questions. Responding by e-mail Wednesday, he said that the AVMA’s concern was spurred by a comment posted online by VIN co-founder and president Dr. Paul Pion. Granstrom wrote:

“In late December, 2009, I was informed by Dr. Kimberly May (AVMA Communications Division staff) that Dr. Paul Pion stated on the VIN Web site that he planned to meet on January 7, 2010 with someone ‘very close’ to the AVMA COE who would provide him with ‘evidence’ of possible impropriety. I was also told that Dr. Pion stated his intention to give VIN reporters the opportunity to review the materials and report on them.”

Granstrom continued: “On January 12, 2010, at 3:10 p.m., Ms. Fiala, a VIN reporter, told Michael San Filippo (AVMA Communications Division staff) in a phone call that she had ‘three thousand pages of paperwork and internal documents’ relating to the AVMA COE.”

Pion acknowledged posting comments on the topic in several long online discussions. The discussions are open to VIN members but not to the general public. On Dec. 25, Pion made several posts, one of which reads in part:

“I recently reawakened the issue [of accreditation] when it was slammed down in front of me by individuals who I very much respect. Some who were aware that the process was proceeding and were uncomfortable, but remained silent, and others who have put huge efforts into the ‘backstory’ of how this is coming to pass.

“Some very close to the COE and with stories of intrigue, impropriety, and corporate corruption — topped off by outright breaking of federal law. How much is true and how much is innuendo, I still do not know. On Jan. 7, I will be visited by one of these parties who is bringing all the evidence they have collected for myself and VIN's attorney to examine.

“VIN News Service reporters will be given the opportunity to examine the materials and report upon them. Whatever the outcome of examining the evidence, this needs to be brought to the forefront and the cloak and dagger removed. So — that is the background of why I am interested in this topic at the current time.”

Pion said in an interview that he met with the source but did not retain any official or internal documents. “I have in my possession nothing that is original to the COE or AVMA,” he said.

Fiala, for her part, said she spoke with San Filippo only to relay her interest in the subject of accreditation, to ask for a copy of the COE’s policies and procedures manual and to request an eventual interview with Granstrom. “I never mentioned anything about having confidential internal documents in my possession,” she said.

“I find it unfortunate that I’m now becoming the news,” she added, expressing reluctance to engage in a “he said, she said” debate. “As a journalist, I don’t have an opinion. I’m not out to get anyone. I really just want answers to the questions that my readers are asking.”

The cease and desist letter is the second such demand Fiala has received from the AVMA in the past four years. The first came in 2006 when Fiala worked as a senior editor for the trade publication DVM Newsmagazine. At the time, she was looking into a personnel controversy in the AVMA.

In that case, Fiala said she did have confidential personnel documents. She said Advanstar Communications, owner of DVM Newsmagazine, capitulated to the AVMA. “As a result of that letter, every single word in the article was gone over and debated...” Fiala said. “My story was whittled down to a mere shell of what it was.”

Fiala said she does not expect the same outcome with VIN. “Different organization, different ethics, different concerns,” she said.

Pion said VIN would defend the rights of veterinarians to information pertinent to their profession. Accordingly, VIN General Counsel Raphael Moore said he is advising the news service to continue its work as usual. “We’re pushing ahead,” Moore said. “We’ll do it within (our) rights and within the law.”

In a response to Mandel’s letter, dated Jan. 15, Moore said the allegations and threats in the letter “are hard to pinpoint” and “flowing with ambiguity.”

For example, he wrote, “...You say that ‘it appears that’ we ‘have acquired COE’s confidential information from a member or other individual who either used improper means to acquire it or is under a duty not to disclose it.’ Not only is your client not sure what the information is, or who has it, but they also don’t know where it came from?”

Moore said in an interview that he sees the threat as an attempt to abridge a journalist’s First Amendment rights. To Mandel he wrote, “If you or your client attempt to stifle the free flow of information, to muzzle VIN reporters, or to strong-arm investigative journalism, VIN will spare no expense in defending the rights of the profession to an open process.”

Alan Mittelstaedt, a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism, said courts long have upheld the rights of reporters to use documents, even classified government documents, in matters of public interest.

“If the documents have a bunch of private information that have no news value, then that’s a problem if you publish the private information,” said Mittelstaedt, an expert in investigative reporting. “But if it says (as a hypothetical example) that doctors at an institution take home animal tranquilizers for recreational use, that’s certainly of news value, and you wouldn’t have any problem with it.”

Moreover, Mittelstaedt said, reporters typically are not held liable for publicizing the contents of documents that have been obtained through covert or illegal means by others — although, of course, those who obtained the documents may be.

For the reporter, “It’s not like receiving stolen stereo equipment,” Mittelstaedt said. “People can go break into the association offices and take the documents and bring them over ... and (the reporter) would never be accused of theft.”

Mittelstaedt said the AVMA’s strong reaction to the possibility that VIN may have internal information makes it appear that the organization has something to hide.

The AVMA’s Granstrom said privacy is critical to the accreditation process.

“The AVMA COE is always interested in an open dialogue about its standards and the process of making accreditation decisions,” he wrote. “However, certain proceedings and information must be kept confidential to safeguard the integrity and objectivity of the accreditation process.”

He added: “Internal COE documents are covered by a confidentially agreement signed by each COE member. Violation of this agreement is taken seriously because it protects the integrity of the accreditation process by promoting free and open deliberation of the confidential information gathered from each school. The Council guarantees the confidentiality of the information it collects. Violation of the confidentiality agreement also compromises the trust established with each school, and discourages the free and open exchange of the information needed for accreditation.”

Granstrom offered a link to their Web site, for information about the organization’s policies, procedures and standards.

Pion said the “cease and desist” letter is inconsistent with “open dialogue.” “If AVMA is interested in open dialogue,” he said, “why did they send this threatening letter and not just give us a call?”

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