Meet the blogger who helped indict Paul Manafort

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'I am not really a reporter'

If Paul Manafort had not been such a crummy and absentee Brooklyn neighbor, he might not be in such hot water. He would not have crossed an urbane housewife-turned-blogger who doesn't consider herself a journalist but smelled something fishy around an unsightly townhouse.

There's no more improbable anecdote to Manafort's indictment for laundering millions of dollars than the saga of Katia Kelly, a German-born former aspiring fashion designer who stumbled upon the curious purchase history of a Brooklyn brownstone that's now evidence in the money laundering case against Manafort.

If ever there was a tale of all politics being local — and ramifications occasionally being national — this is it.

"I am not really a reporter," Kelly told me Tuesday as she helped her father close up his North Carolina beach house. She grew up in Germany and France and moved with the family at age 14 to Long Island, which she hated ("so dreadfully dull"). 

She went to design school in Manhattan, fell in love with a Brooklyn native and moved to a then sleepy, primarily Italian neighborhood of Carroll Gardens ("After 32 years here, some of my Italian neighbors still consider me a newcomer"). She got pregnant, started a family and discarded professional ambitions in the fashion field.

She was a dedicated stay-at-home mom until the kids grew up and she was a bit antsy. Ten years ago she saw an article about blogs. She thought starting one would be a great (and inexpensive) way to stay in touch with European friends. She's not even sure why she called hers "Pardon Me for Asking."

Blogger
Katia Kelly

During the same period developers started targeting her Carroll Gardens neighborhood. Proposals for 12- and 15-story developments in their low-density area worried her and others. Their City Council member — one Bill de Blasio, now the mayor — "was not very responsible and never met a developer he didn't like," she says. So she started going to land use meetings, in part since most were in the middle of the day and she didn’t have a job that conflicted.

She started blogging about development issues and other purely local matters. Along the way, she became pretty well versed in development issues and how to ferret out information. That was helpful when she was walking around with her camera this past winter. She does that often merely to document changes in the neighborhood for the blog. She always wonders what might have been in a certain place previously.

She walked past a brownstone that looked a mess from the outside. Windows were broken and the front door had been replaced with plywood and closed with a huge chain. "It just looked unkempt with a lot of construction debris."

A neighbor saw her with her camera and began chatting. Kelly said she was just taking photos for her blog. The neighbor said, "You want a scoop?"  She alluded to a "celebrity" who now owned on the block. Kelly figured she must mean some Hollywood type, since they have been spotted with regularity in recent years. But then the neighbor said, "Paul Manafort."

"Why would Manafort have a brownstone in Carroll Gardens and let it deteriorate the way it had?" Kelly recalls wondering.

She poked around and, yes, confirmed it was Manafort. And she discovered an odd series of transactions, as well as a mortgage amount of $6,803,750 that exceeded the current value of the home, all the more given its lousy condition. She got nervous and asked her husband and children if she should do anything about a man close to the president. They said go for it.

In her post, she wrote, "Who would have thought that this once solid Italian working class neighborhood would one day attract Hollywood celebrities as well as Washington lobbyists."

"I don't know what to make of all of this. Maybe one of my readers can interpret these transactions?"

A bunch of Manhattan journalists live in the general area and saw the blog post. The New York Post contacted Manafort about the appearance of being a poor neighbor. Not long after, a new contractor was hired, work was done and the house looked better. "If he had done that two years ago, nobody would have known" about the convoluted ownership, she says.

And it wasn't just a few journalists who saw the original blog post. So did some lawyers. She didn't really know what she had but now does, namely evidence of alleged money laundering from the Ukraine. 

The lesson? "The bigger picture for me is just the fact there here is somebody who pushed all the limits and got away with it for a really long time. We should all be proud the system seems to work."

On a more fundamental, media level, here's the bottom line for Michele Bogart, a Stony Brook University professor of art history and criticism who lives in Brooklyn: "As local coverage in the daily papers has been eviscerated, blogs like PMFA have really come to play a crucial role. They're not only places for neighborhood  gossip and debate, but also for significant news. In circumstances like these, when one persistent local sleuth helps blow open a national story, we really see just how much is lost with the abandonment of the micro-local by mainstream media."

Oh, Kelly yesterday posted a photo sent by a reader. It's of a mock landmark designation placed on the front of the Manafort brownstone. It reads:

"The House That Brought Down A President"

"377 Union Street will forever be known as the building that lead to the collapse of the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Originally acquired by Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in January 2017, this building's finances would later become the foundation for initial charges of money laundering and conspiracy against the United States of America."

Pardon my presumptuousness, but assuming you want to see what's on the site today, here you go

The New York truck attack

After news of yesterday's incident, in which a driver barreled through a bike lane, killing eight people and injuring 11, "Trump & Friends" made it almost entirely an immigration issue and contended that the government should ditch the diversity visa program by which the suspect entered the country. It called for legislation sponsor Sen. Chuck Schumer to fall on some sword and admit it was wayward. So amid the attack, blame a Democrat continues to be an initial post-incident thesis on the right, though there was one caveat offered up by The Washington Post as it noted how "The extreme right has found its true culprit in Tuesday’s deadly terrorist attack in Manhattan" via Schumer:

"As details emerged about the incident, prominent right-wing commentators and news outlets seized on an ABC7 story reporting that alleged attacker Sayfullo Saipov had come to the United States from Uzbekistan under a State Department program known as the Diversity Visa Lottery. That story is unconfirmed."

CNN "New Day" was rather less polemical as it went close to the scene with its cadre of counterterrorism pundits (co-host Chris Cuomo noted the proximity of a great high school that's a true bastion of diversity, Stuyvesant) while MSNBC's "Morning Joe" suggested that Trump's initial reaction "played into the hands" of the terrrorist, as Mike Barnicle put it. Former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio all joined the show that still couldn't quite restrain its genetic impulse to go heavy Trump, notably on the Manafort case.

O'Reilly, Wieseltier, Halperin, now Michael Oreskes 

The Washington Post broke the tale of NPR placing news chief Michael Oreskes on leave amid allegations that he engaged in very untoward conduct toward two women while a top editor at The New York Times. The Times' own piece includes this:

"Jill Abramson, a former executive editor at The Times who once served as a deputy to Mr. Oreskes, confirmed to The Post a description of his questionable interactions with a young female employee then at The Times. Ms. Abramson also said she wished she had said something about Mr. Oreskes’ conduct."

“'If I had to do it again, I would have told him to knock it off,' she told The Post. 'I should have stopped him.'”

"Ms. Abramson declined to comment further to The Times. 'I confirmed the one incident I knew of to The Post,' she said in an email on Tuesday, 'and have nothing to add beyond what I said.'”

Well, there will now surely be a job opening at NPR, which itself was rather slow to post anything on its website. When it did (rather discreetly), it was of a good David Folkenflik piece on a late version of "All Things Considered" and included this additional information:

"Meanwhile, a current NPR employee is going public with her account of filing a formal complaint with the network's human resources division in October 2015. Rebecca Hersher says she considers the incident less severe but nevertheless felt it crossed a line and made her uncomfortable. At the time a 26-year-old assistant producer on Weekend All Things Considered, she said Oreskes hijacked a career counseling session into a three-hour-long dinner that delved into deeply personal territory."

Reporter arrested in Virginia

Law Newz recounts how "A reporter was brutally arrested by multiple Virginia police officers while covering the gubernatorial campaign of Republican candidate Ed GillespieMike Stark, a reporter and videographer with Shareblue Media, a left-leaning website, was filming the Gillespie campaign bus as it approached the Annandale parade in the city of the same name."

"In the video, Stark can be seen talking to an officer with the Mason District Police. The officer attempts to remove Stark from the area where he is filming — demanding that the reporter move back away from the Gillespie campaign bus. At this point, Stark is some 20 yards away from the bus."

Headline of the day

From Recode: "Tech is scary powerful, and other things we learned when Facebook, Google and Twitter testified to Congress about Russia"

The ample coverage of the ongoing testimony included "Vice News Tonight" on HBO, which last night underscored Facebook's initially dismissive notion of any foreign interference on its platform. Several unidentified sources in the company told the show they're concerned about "something much deeper: a decade long pattern of reckless product rollouts, embarrassing exposures and denials that put profit first and Facebook's 2 billion users last." That would include the 2007 rollout of an app called Beacon, which would track you on other websites that partnered with Facebook and post what you were looking at on your feed without consent. Movie ticket buyers on Fandango would have movies they saw posted to their timeline, with one user having a surprise Christmas gift he bought for his wife on Overstock.com then posted to his timeline, which his wife then saw.

Drip, drip, drip

The decline of newspapers is in evidence again with word that Atlanta-based Cox Media Group is selling The Palm Beach Post, Palm Beach Daily News, Austin-American Statesman and Texas community papers. It will hold on to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Dayton Daily News and its TV-radio group.

Surprise? No. Check this comment in 2015 by Mike Joseph, Cox's executive vice president: "We can win local. But national is a different story," alluding to plummeting national ad dollars. "So I got $58 million I got to cut out of the business to maintain profits. That’s going to be hard.”

Might there be motivated bidders? Apparently. Still, the odds would be that new owners would cut, cut, cut as they, too, fumble around with how to turn a buck on the digital side. Don't hold your breath awaiting a local newspaper owner who doubles editorial staffing to vastly and imaginatively improve coverage as they seek to raise revenue with an absorbing, must-have product.

Wayne Barrett remembered

The Investigative Fund seeks application for "The Wayne Barrett Investigative Fund, launching in honor of the legacy of the late reporter. This fund will support ambitious reporting projects focused on Wayne's major areas of interest: politics and corruption in both New York City and on the national stage. Projects that build on Barrett ’s previous reporting are particularly encouraged." Here's the link.

Molly Ivins remembered

The Texas Observer and Texas Democracy Foundation are taking  entries for The 2018 MOLLY National Journalism Prize. It honors great print or online journalism and the spirit of the late Molly Ivins. First prize is $5,000.

And for those who don't recall Ivins, as Texas Observer publisher Mike Kanin put it: "For those millennials out there who may not yet know Molly, she's the inimitable voice who famously blanched NYT editors with the phrase 'gang pluck' when referring to a Texas chicken festival." If you've got questions, holler at mollyawards@texasobserver.org.

Sinclair a 'Buy'

Aggressively right-leaning Sinclair Broadcasting, awaiting government approval of its purchase of Tribune Broadcasting, was rated a buy by FBR.

More Facebook and fake news

Writes Bloomberg Businessweek: "Facebook has yet to provide a full accounting of either the impact of the attempts to manipulate its algorithm — so far its disclosures have focused on a single Russian propaganda outlet — or the number of fake accounts. And as my colleague Sarah Frier reported yesterday, its fact-checking efforts are barely putting a dent in the fake news problem. Facebook has characterized these efforts as a work in progress."

"The company’s missteps have seemed obvious to everyone but its executive staff."

A World Series winner

There will be a Game 7 Wednesday in Los Angeles after the Dodgers tied it last night. What a series. But there's already at least one winner: Fox game analyst John Smoltz, himself a Hall of Fame pitcher. He's level-headed, acute, fun, educational and cliche-free. He's not one of the new generation of intrusive, stat-filled, rather vanilla announcers whom one has a tough time in differentiating among. Check him out.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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