Cooper, Nelson, and another Los Angeles Times staffer say Waas continued to hound the bureau for an extended period of time. “Murray thinks everybody is talking about him,” says the staffer. “It’s like a tar baby once you’ve tangled with him for a while.”
Waas disputes this account, saying that he did in fact receive job offers from the Los Angeles Times, but not for the Washington bureau. He says he could not accept employment with the paper because he had to stay in Washington for personal reasons.
When asked about his work with Waas, Frantz replied, “I still stand by those stories.” And would Frantz, now a managing editor at the Los Angeles Times, hire Waas? “Let me not comment on Murray today. I don’t know, I see he’s gotten some good scoops at National Journal, but we’re not hiring now.”
Rejection letters are a fact of life for every freelance journalist—yet some sting more than others. The following comes from one such letter that Waas received from the head of the Washington Post’s investigative unit dated Dec. 16, 1993:
“I’m sorry that this effort didn’t work out for you or for The Post. At this point, 16 months after we first talked about the story, I think it’s best to declare it over so that you can move on,” wrote Postie Steve Luxenberg.
Waas’ rendezvous with the Post’s investigative aces came about via pure enterprise. He had uncovered a court file on Forest Haven, the city’s institution for the mentally retarded in Laurel, Md. The voluminous records outlined subpar conditions for the District’s mentally retarded wards.
“No one at the Post had bothered to go take a look at it,” says a former Post staffer.
Waas sorted through the docket and pitched a perfect Post investigative series: An alarming number of Forest Haven residents had died from conditions associated with aspiration pneumonia, “an infection that can be caused by entry of food into the lungs when patients are fed while they are lying down instead of sitting up,” Waas would later write. In Waas’ view, the deaths were the tragic result of poor management: The staff had not been trained to feed patients properly.
With the assistance of Post staffers, Waas banged away at the story for months. According to two sources, however, the reporting didn’t meet Luxenberg’s evidentiary requirements , and the story died. “Luxenberg had several meetings with Waas that ended badly,” says a source who was at the Post at the time. Waas received $8,000 for his troubles.
In April 1994, the Los Angeles Times Magazine published Waas’ Forest Haven exposé. It was a gripping, well-told piece, one that Waas cites as among his proudest achievements. Forest Haven was long gone, however; the institution had closed in 1991 and its residents had been scattered to many smaller sites.
A few years later, Post reporter Katherine Boo visited one of those sites, a D.C. group home for the mentally retarded. Conditions at the residential facility were “awful,” and Boo, who had already spent nine years on the District poverty beat, was soon in full investigative mode.
Waas, whose Forest Haven piece she had read in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, was one of many people she called in reporting the story. She took him to lunch, she recalls, to pick his brain about some Forest Haven wards who’d later died of neglect in the group homes. Waas eagerly offered his help, documents included. “Murray was at the time saying to me, ‘I have all the documents that you want and need,’” recalls Boo. Waas said that his information included evidence of federal crimes by city officials, “stuff 100 times bigger than anything I had,” writes Boo via e-mail. She was grateful for the offer but ultimately turned it down, in part because Waas was still angry with the Post over his Forest Haven story. Boo says she didn’t want her story to get tangled up in an old spat. “I just decided that it was better not to look at any of his documents, and he was angry about that.”
In December 1999, the Post published an 8,600-word account called “Invisible Deaths: The Fatal Neglect of D.C.’s Retarded” under Boo’s byline. The story detailed some of the 116 deaths at D.C. group homes for the mentally retarded between 1993 and 1999. The package landed with immediate impact, prompting various governmental investigations and firings at the city’s agency for the mentally retarded.
After the group-home series played out, Waas started working Boo’s phone, she recalls. The calls came in bursts, stopping altogether on certain days and then bunching up on others. The cadence intensified in the spring of 2000, when the Post scored the highest honor in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize for public service, for Boo’s work.
In these phone calls, Waas charged that the Post had blood on its hands for staying silent as the city’s wards died off over the years—setting the stage for a blockbuster story. Boo says that for most of the year, she kept her responses cordial and urged Waas to take his complaints to the Post’s managing editor or media critics. That didn’t stop Waas from phoning her. “I would listen to his grievances for two hours, and then an hour later, he’d call again,” she recalls. After Boo stopped picking up the phone, Waas showed up at her Logan Circle apartment at night. “I was disturbed by it,” she says.
So was Lorraine Adams, a close friend of Boo’s. “I do remember being concerned for Kate’s safety,” says Adams, a former Post reporter.
In addition to pressing his point that the Post was complicit in the group-home abuses, Waas told Boo that her Post colleagues had signed a letter “against” her that sought an impartial inquiry into the paper’s conduct toward Waas; that Waas and Boo could be prosecuted for failing to disclose federal crimes; and that something was going to “come out” regarding Boo and her work on the group homes story. She recalls: “[He said] it was going to all come out and did I have anything to say.…I just wanted whatever to come out and it would be over.”
In September 2002, Boo won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” The good news, says Boo, prompted a call from Waas and some familiar arguments. “This particular call was sufficiently unnerving—not just because of the blood and accusations of a federal crime, but because of the tone,” writes Boo via e-mail. Mary Ann Werner, vice president and counsel of the Post, eventually intervened and asked Waas to stop. He complied.
When asked about his pursuit of Boo, Waas responded that Washington City Paper has a conflict of interest in writing about the matter. He told Editor Erik Wemple: “I think your wife has some personal involvement there.…She’s your wife’s best friend.” Wemple’s wife, Stephanie Mencimer, is a close friend of Boo’s, and Boo is a former employee of City Paper.
In September 2004, Waas sued the Post in D.C. small claims court for $4,649 he claims he was owed from his Forest Haven project. The pro se complaint came nearly 12 years after Waas submitted his drafts to Luxenberg. The case was dismissed with prejudice by a D.C. Superior Court judge in 2005. According to court records, Waas failed to appear at his final hearing.
In the mid-’90s, the zaniest conspiracy tales were coming out of Arkansas. The Whitewater affair starred President Clinton as a trailer-park Don greasing the rails of an international drug ring, snorting mountains of coke, chasing town beauties, and making money and men disappear. It was irresistible to Waas. He waded into the mix by doing what every hungry journalist would do. He dialed up local Little Rock reporters, soaked up what the old heads had to say, and tried to navigate through the thick accents and the mores of country life.
Then he started to mark his turf, in a manner that played out in the pages of the New Republic. In fall 1996, journalist Michael Lewis was writing a diary on the Clinton-Dole race for that Washington-based policy magazine. The opus had a proto-blog feel, and in one entry Lewis narrates his attempts to contact various anti-Clinton scandalmongers. As the diary recounts, Lewis starts out by ringing up Waas. He is looking for a phone number for the famed Clinton detractor Larry Nichols, and he leaves a message with Waas asking for his assistance. Waas leaves a return message indicating he’d love to help but neglecting to include a number for Nichols.
Editor’s Note: Months ago, when this article was still a draft, it got Washington City Paper and its staff nominated as finalists for “Worst People of 2006” by Daily Kos. Our subject, Murray Waas, has complained publicly and privately that the authors are prejudiced against him, are incapable of writing fairly and accurately about him, and have acted unprofessionally and unethically in gathering their material. He has also disputed many of the facts presented in the article.