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Poisoned at the Source


O'Brien headed to the federal courthouse downtown to review Zeltser's litigation against Inkombank. He found that Zeltser had been accused of several scams in the course of the suit, including faking the Russian-law-school diploma that qualified him to take the bar exam. His diploma didn't match others from his university -- it was emblazoned with the slogan WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE. (The litigation with Inkombank was suspended, and his diploma is still under investigation by the state.)

On December 1, O'Brien returned to Zeltser's office for a more formal interview. He brought a tape recorder, so Zeltser took out his own and taped it, too. "I thought we ended it with the understanding of friendship," Zeltser said.

"I don't think our relationship is about being friends or not being friends," O'Brien said. "My understanding of our relationship as a reporter and a source was based on the provision of accurate information."

Zeltser badgered him not to proceed. "Even a lead, coming from the New York Times, will place me and some people around me in very imminent physical danger," Zeltser said.

O'Brien pushed on, questioning Zeltser about what he'd learned, before turning to Zeltser's relationship with Berkounova. "I don't speak with her that often," Zeltser said. "We have kind of a generation gap. . . . I have spent more time in my life with you than I did with her."

O'Brien was sure this wasn't true; he'd obtained an e-mail she'd apparently sent him, that addressed him, in Russian, "Dear Beast."

Zeltser pushed O'Brien not to run the story. "Even a lead, coming from the New York Times, will put me and some people around me in very imminent physical danger, he said.

"Are you making faces?" Zeltser demanded. "Making faces while I am giving answers?!"

When the tape recorders were off, says O'Brien, Zeltser delivered his own warning: "I hope you know that if you go through with this, I will have to retaliate."

Then Zeltser abruptly changed tone. He held out his right hand and raised his left arm as though moving in for a big handshake and a hug. "I have to go now," O'Brien said, backing away. "I'll call you for another interview."

The next day, O'Brien began to guess what Zeltser meant. "Suddenly it changed from being fun and fascinating to being one of the biggest reporting challenges of my life," O'Brien says. First came an e-mail from Oxana Berkounova. "Tim, at this point, I must demand that you stop harassing me," she began. "It appears to me that you, under the color of 'reporting,' are trying to punish me for rejecting your advances. . . . At no time did I give you the slightest reason to believe that I was there as anything more than your dinner companion. This certainly did not encompass succumbing to your persistent demands to inform you which hotel I was staying that night. . . ."

Alluding to his "anguish" over "marital problems," she accused him of blackmailing her with threats to call her senior management. If he continued, she threatened to "make my position known and public in every respect." In fact, a copy of the letter was already on its way to the Times, and it appeared simultaneously on the Website for Zeltser's American Russian Law Institute.

Within days, other letters followed. Zeltser complained to the Times editors that he felt betrayed: "Tim now is so blinded by his hatred of the Journal that he may be acting irrationally." And Emily Topol, a woman who'd been in Zeltser's office before they'd retired to the Russian Samovar, quoted O'Brien as saying, "Access to the Times pages to settle personal scores was a fringe benefit available to NYT reporters." (O'Brien emphatically denies this account.)

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