Poisoned at the Source

Making his way through the New York Times newsroom on the morning of August 19, 1999, Timothy O’Brien basked in congratulations. On the Times front page, under a byline he shared with veteran reporter Raymond Bonner, was a story revealing for the first time the Bank of New York’s complicity in a staggering money-laundering operation – perhaps $10 billion in all – set up by corrupt Russian banks. It was the biggest financial scandal in a decade. For O’Brien, a stocky 38-year-old with a blunt-talking manner and a receding hairline, it was the high point in his eleven-year reporting career.

The moment must have been doubly sweet because it meant that he’d scooped the Wall Street Journal. Five years before, banking had been his beat at the Journal. But after he returned from a paternity leave, it had been given to another reporter, and he’d grown increasingly frustrated. Three years ago, he jumped to the Times, and now he’d beaten his former employers to a story in the heart of their own territory. The story, he knew, would set off a mad scramble to catch up in newsrooms around the city. But he and Bonner weren’t about to let that happen.

In the middle of the morning, as O’Brien pushed ahead on a follow-up, he received a call from a stranger, a Russian-American journalist named Viktor Smolny. “I know this lawyer, Emanuel Zeltser,” Smolny said. “He has all these documents about the Bank of New York. You should meet him.”

O’Brien arranged to meet Zeltser at about two o’clock the same day, in Zeltser’s office at West 57th and Broadway. The office turned out to be a dingy three-room suite decorated with prints of Russian art and framed certificates from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign.

Zeltser was an unusual figure, to say the least. He was just under six feet tall, thick and balding, with intense eyes shadowed by a heavy brow. He appeared to be in his mid-fifties, although he turned out to be only 46. Throughout their talk, Zeltser guzzled Diet Coke and chain-smoked Marlboros, often forgetting to flick the ashes until they fell onto his shirt and tie. He lit his cigarettes with a lighter in the shape of a miniature blowtorch, leading to his Times-newsroom nickname: Blowtorch. An air purifier hummed ineffectually below his desk.

Zeltser told O’Brien that a number of years before, he’d done legal work for Inkombank, one of the largest and most corrupt Russian banks, before it became insolvent and collapsed. His work ended in 1993, however, and he became embroiled in a lawsuit over his payments. Inkombank countersued, alleging embezzlement. In the course of discovery, Zeltser explained, he had obtained reams of documents from inside Inkombank, which he would be delighted to share.

“I had created this Frankenstein monster by quoting this guy,” says O’Brien. “I gave him credibility, and then everybody thought he was the key to breaking the Bank of New York story.”

O’Brien’s story had reported that Natasha Kagalovsky, a senior vice-president at the Bank of New York, was under suspicion in the scandal. Zeltser filled in further details about Kagalovsky’s push for Inkombank’s business. He handed over a 1995 memo from Kagalovsky to her superiors trumpeting her success. “Inkombank is our largest generator of fee income,” the memo noted.

O’Brien was elated. “Sometimes,” he says, “when you are chasing a story, you find these weird people who have documents. I thought it was one of those lucky days.”

O’Brien checked his new discoveries and then filed his follow-up story. The piece, which detailed the eagerness of Bank of New York executives to do business with Russian financiers who were obviously crooks, quoted Zeltser by name while acknowledging that his personal quarrel with Inkombank gave him a motive to wish it ill.

The same day the second story appeared, he brought Ray Bonner up to meet their new source at his office. Zeltser thanked O’Brien for quoting him, O’Brien says, but then he asked for anonymity, citing his fear of the Russian mob. His new interest in keeping a low profile made O’Brien suspicious. And then, as the reporters sat on a leather couch and tried to gauge what he knew about the Bank of New York, Zeltser seemed to blunder badly.

Zeltser told the two he knew a key bank executive named Peter Berlin.
“What does he look like?” O’Brien asked. Zeltser, O’Brien says, described him as short and sandy-haired. As it happened, however, O’Brien knew Berlin from his investigations – he was tall and thin, with a distinctive black beard. As far as O’Brien was concerned, the game was over. “To me he was a dead end,” says O’Brien. “We just said, ‘He smells,’ and pushed him aside. Then Ray and I went off on a whole other big reporting trail.”

Walking away from Zeltser, however, did not turn out to be that easy. A financial scandal on the scale of the Russian-money-laundering probe quickly becomes an industry, with journalists and lawyers competing fiercely for information. And with O’Brien’s help – he was the only named source in the Times stories – Zeltser quickly built himself a powerful franchise, a clearinghouse for gossip and documents on the Bank of New York scandal.

“I had created this Frankenstein monster by quoting this guy,” O’Brien says now. “I gave him credibility, and then everybody thought he was the key to breaking the Bank of New York story.”

When O’Brien realized what had happened, he tried to undo it, even taking two near-heretical steps: making himself a subject of one his own stories and exposing a source in the pages of the New York Times. But when he set out to unmask Zeltser, Zeltser attempted to expose O’Brien in return, eventually enlisting the New York Post’s “Page Six” and even the New York City Police Department.

“The Wall Street Journal, USA Today,the London Times, CNN, Bridge News – I was working with a lot of reporters,” Emanuel Zeltser says when I first meet him in his office. “I was friendly with everyone.”

Zeltser provided excellent service to the reporters. He was in his office until all hours of the night – he sticks around, he says, for calls from Eastern Europe – and he’s happy to entertain them. So heavy was the foot traffic at the height of the case that journalists frequently ran into each other there. Sometimes they went out to have drinks with the women who were always milling around Zeltser’s office – freelance journalists or employees of his American Russian Law Institute – while competing reporters met with him.

Zeltser also became a fixture on the phone lists of attorneys working for Mel Weiss, the flamboyant lawyer known for shareholder lawsuits, who filed suit against the Bank of New York’s directors soon after O’Brien’s first story appeared. Zeltser himself teamed up with Harold Hoffman, a local lawyer, to file suit against the Bank of New York on behalf of Inkombank depositors, alleging that it abetted Inkombank’s graft and subsequent bankruptcy. Zeltser told reporters that he expected to seek more than $1 billion in damages, redoubling his incentive to see both banks disparaged in the press.

“Of course I have an interest!” Zeltser tells me. “Of course I am not an objective source. There is no question that I am suing the Bank of New York, I sued Inkombank; clearly those guys are not my friends. If something appears in the paper saying that they are no good, well, yeah, at least emotionally it is good for me. That is why a reporter needs to make a decision what to print and what not to.”

I was at the Journal at the same time as O’Brien, and I knew him professionally, though not well. He revels in the profane banter and competitiveness of the newsroom, calling colleagues “dude” or “chief,” while often bringing a crusading fervor to his job. Some reporters use a seduction strategy, ingratiating themselves with their sources, but O’Brien is not one of those. He’s aggressive – maybe even hotheaded – attacking stories head-on, making phone call after phone call until he gets the information he’s looking for.

Though he and Zeltser traded calls in the weeks after his first stories appeared, O’Brien didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Zeltser until he picked up the phone on a Monday late in October. “Tim, did you see the World Bank story in the Journal on Friday?” Zeltser said. “You know, I have a lot of documents relating to that and to Natasha.”

O’Brien had read the story. It had reported that the World Bank was investigating one of its Russian representatives for working with Inkombank to trade on inside information. The Journal quoted a memo from an executive named Leonid Grigoriev, the alleged leaker, telling Inkombank’s chairman about the World Bank’s plans. (When the Journal contacted Grigoriev, he first seemed to recognize the memo, but later he denied writing it.)

O’Brien insists that the World Bank story didn’t really register with him. “That wasn’t my story to cover – I couldn’t care less,” O’Brien says. “We had clear goals in our investigation, and I didn’t think the World Bank was a direct part of it.”

Zeltser’s call, however, piqued his interest. “Suddenly, a lightbulb went off in my head,” O’Brien says. Though Zeltser hadn’t said so, O’Brien thought the Journal’s reporters might have relied on his information. And at the very least, O’Brien wanted to know what Zeltser had to say about Natasha Kagalovsky. “I’ll come up and take a look,” O’Brien says he told Zeltser. He also warned him: “If any of it is garbage, your anonymity is out the window.”

“Fine, fine,” Zeltser replied.

Back in his smoky office, Zeltser bragged right away that he was the source behind the Journal’s story, and handed over the memo from Grigoriev.

To O’Brien, the whole thing seemed fishy. He hadn’t met Grigoriev, but he had heard of him as a mild-mannered professor of economics from the Gorbachev era. Then there was the memo itself. Across the top was printed, “ATTENTION: The very fact of our participation in this transaction must remain a secret,” which struck O’Brien as somewhat counterproductive. Its author recounted past windfalls from insider trading: “You realized the profit of $4,308,000 or 43% of your initial investment,” he wrote, adding parenthetically, “Minus my modest commission of 10%.” Hokey, O’Brien thought.

Zeltser presented a number of documents that seemed to corroborate the scheme – a record of some Russian bond trades, a letter from a Washington, D.C., law firm to Inkombank that mentioned Grigoriev as an Inkombank agent in the U.S. But there were some documents he wouldn’t let O’Brien take with him, and others with pages missing.

“I am thinking, This stuff is fake, and this guy is just starting to smear people,” O’Brien says. “I’m not trying to sound like Saint Tim, but I think that isn’t right.”

Back in the newsroom, O’Brien called Andrei Bugrov, Grigoriev’s former boss at the World Bank, whose fax machine had sent the memo. Bugrov said it seemed phony to him, too. What’s more, he said he had told the Journal that. Still, the World Bank had hired outside lawyers to investigate. Then O’Brien did some more research – he found Zeltser widely cited since the Times had quoted him, and several stories seemed to draw on the same dubious materials Zeltser had shown O’Brien.

“Frankly, my first reaction was, let the Journal keep using this guy if they want. He’s a dead end. But when I saw the stuff he was disseminating, I thought, there is a different issue here. This guy had become an important player in what is arguably the biggest financial story of the decade, just because he is skilled at orchestrating this stuff and the media isn’t more skeptical.”

O’Brien told his editor, Stephen Engelberg, what he had learned about the unofficial money-laundering lending-library Zeltser had opened for journalists in his office, and Engelberg told him it was worth looking into – it might be a story. Two days later, O’Brien called Zeltser. “We are interested in doing a story on you now, Emanuel,” O’Brien says he told him. “A lot of this stuff is problematic, and you have bragged to me that you are a source for too many legs of this story.”

Zeltser sounded wounded but insisted that he could clear everything up the next time O’Brien came to his office. The two arranged to meet the following day.

Zeltser had become a figure of considerable power in New York’s Russian world even before the Bank of New York scandal. The Russian immigrants around him come from a world like the one James Ellroy depicted in L.A. Confidential. Corruption is rampant, shady businessmen seem to be printing money, bribery is common at every level, and journalists are as likely as anyone to be on the take. The Russian immigrants I spoke with accused me alternately of working for O’Brien and working for Zeltser. In their world, American assumptions, that criminals tend to get caught or that journalists try to be impartial, are naïve. Someone like Zeltser – a rich man, a lawyer who says he can get things done – can be a valuable ally.

Zeltser’s background and career are varied and picaresque. He says he grew up in the Russian town of Kishinev, in what is now Moldova. He studied piano, he says, as well as “international” and “Anglo-American law” at an experimental Soviet school. Unfortunately, he says, the Russian mob destroyed any record of his attendance there. He also sometimes says he trained to be a professional race-car driver during that same time.

Zeltser immigrated to the U.S. as a political refugee in 1974, ending up in Dallas, where he cleaned tables at a Taco Inn and a Burger King. Soon, he found a way to take advantage of his musical skills. He landed a job playing piano at a strip club. “It was one of the fanciest German cabarets in Dallas, Texas. There were a group of 26 girls – they undressed, but not completely. There were also 110 kinds of German sausage, and I was a lot thinner before I worked there. I do not see anything wrong with that,” Zeltser says. “When you come to this country, you do whatever you have to do.”

A year later, he came to New York, where he and his wife, Anna Zeltser, studied performance at the Juilliard School for a year. After that, Zeltser drove a cab and moved through a series of jobs – selling textbooks, investing in a Russian-language radio station, and translating English television shows over the air – before hanging up his shingle as an independent business consultant.

His fortunes changed in 1989, Zeltser says, when he decided to become a U.S. lawyer. Attending law school in Russia, as he says he did, technically qualified him as a lawyer in the U.S. if he took New York’s bar exam. He passed on his first try. “I took it at the same time as JFK Jr., who failed on his second try,” Zeltser says.

“I used to do a lot of matrimonial work, criminal cases, things of this nature, but at this point, primarily I have four or five very, very wealthy clients, in Eastern Europe,” Zeltser says. “I spend a lot of time litigating in various international tribunals, like the Hague.” In 1992, he managed to persuade the giant Russian Inkombank to retain him to do legal work in New York.

Zeltser’s account of his relationship with O’Brien couldn’t be more different from the one the reporter tells. “I was fairly friendly with O’Brien,” he says. “We went out for drinks, primarily to the Marriott Marquis, to the eighth floor, but also to the Russian Samovar. This was not just reporter-source relationship. This was the kind of relationship where he would walk in without a telephone call at ten o’clock in the evening. That is what hurt.”

O’Brien’s next meeting with Zeltser cleared up absolutely nothing. Zeltser supplied a fax from another friend of his, which said that she had given the Journal the controversial memo. O’Brien called it preposterous, and they sparred for a time. Then Zeltser asked others in the office to excuse them. “Tim, do you not trust me anymore?” he said when they were alone. “Can we just hold hands and reestablish trust?”

“No, Emanuel, we can’t!” O’Brien replied. “I am doing a story now. And I have questions about your credibility.”

But Zeltser, says O’Brien, wasn’t ready to give up. He invited O’Brien to dinner, promising that a European bank executive would be there who would verify everything. O’Brien agreed to treat him and one of the women for dinner at the Russian Samovar, a Russian-immigrant hangout on 52nd Street near Eighth Avenue with dark-red banquettes and a white grand piano by the bar. Zeltser had brought along another woman – 26 years old, tall and slender, with long dark hair and pale skin. Zeltser introduced her as Oxana Berkounova, an employee of an international-development bank based in London.

Berkounova assured O’Brien that everyone knew about the insider trading, and told him about Zeltser’s work as an anti-corruption crusader. O’Brien wasn’t convinced, but he let the conversation drift away from business. When the Russians asked where O’Brien lived, he mentioned that he had recently moved. He had been separated from his wife, he said, and they were in the middle of a divorce. But he wanted to stay near their two children, he said, in a town in northern New Jersey.

On the way to an after-dinner drink at Benvenuti, in the Hotel Pennsylvania, Zeltser excused himself, and O’Brien continued on with the women. They sipped martinis, and O’Brien soaked up gossip about the journalists hanging around Zeltser. He was particularly curious about Berkounova. She was attractive, for one thing, but O’Brien also wondered about her connections to Zeltser. They chatted about her job in London – he thought she seemed fuzzy on some details – and also about her plans in New York. Finally, he left to catch a bus at Port Authority.

On Monday, O’Brien called another Russian source. As it happened, the source had seen him at the Samovar with Berkounova; she told O’Brien that Berkounova worked not for a bank in London but for the World Bank in Washington. What’s more, she was actually Zeltser’s old friend and protégée.

O’Brien instantly dialed the World Bank switchboard, and sure enough, they put him through to Oxana Berkounova. “That is when things really started clicking for me,” he says. If she was Zeltser’s mole inside the World Bank, he theorized, she might have helped him concoct the Grigoriev memo.

“I want to talk to you about your relationship with Emanuel Zeltser,” O’Brien demanded.

Berkounova gasped. “I am busy with work. I will call you back in an hour,” O’Brien remembers her saying. She didn’t call back, so O’Brien called again and again. He was determined now, and his messages grew more insistent, but she still didn’t talk.

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.)

O’Brien began checking Zeltser’s Website frequently to find out what new smears against him had been posted – Zeltser put a sign on the site saying O’Brien was its most frequent visitor. O’Brien began calling Anna Reid, Zeltser’s ex-wife and a lawyer. She first told O’Brien she would talk, but then she didn’t return repeated calls, so he decided to surprise her at home, in a high-rise on West 76th Street. The doorman told him the intercom was broken and that he should go right up. “I thought, great, that means I will be able to knock on her door,” O’Brien says – she would have to talk to him.

He raced upstairs and rang the doorbell. Feet shuffled to the door and the eyehole slid open. A voice behind the door said, “It’s him.” O’Brien raised his voice. “It’s Tim O’Brien from the New York Times. Are you going to talk to me?” Silence. Finally, he left.

The next day, a letter from Reid arrived at the Times. Calling O’Brien’s behavior “bordering on being deranged,” Reid complained that O’Brien had been “yelling something and ringing and banging on the door.” When she looked through the eyehole, she saw him “moving back and forth and appearing unbalanced.”

O’Brien was at his desk, about to leave another message for Reid, when a desk clerk on duty at the 24th Precinct called. “I have a Ms. Anna Reid here, and she says you are harassing her,” he said. “Tell me, when do you people stop?”

As O’Brien pursued the story, letters continued to pour in. O’Brien says that one evening at about seven, he called looking for Zeltser at the home of a friend and associate of Zeltser’s named Svetlana Moysievich. “I presume that Mr. O’Brien is over the age of 11,” she wrote in her letter of complaint the next day. “If he gets off by calling married women at night looking for men other than their husbands, perhaps he should not do that under the auspices of the New York Times.

O’Brien pushed his investigation farther. “I really went to the mat on this one,” he says, “It was like a hall of mirrors.”

He learned from a friend in Washington that Robert Puglisi, a private investigator hired by Milberg, Weiss, was making inquiries into O’Brien’s background, and at a meeting with Weiss he demanded to know if Puglisi was snooping around him.

Meanwhile, O’Brien began receiving calls himself from Jack Palladino, a private investigator hired by lawyers for a suspect in the money-laundering case. Palladino began calling many of Zeltser’s friends, too. Soon, letters and stories appeared on Zeltser’s Website claiming that a New York Times reporter was working with “gumshoes” hired to squelch the money-laundering story.

At times, O’Brien unwittingly abetted Zeltser’s claims. Knowing that Zeltser screened his calls with his answering machine, O’Brien left a message telling him to pick up: “My people on 57th Street tell me you’re in your office, Emanuel.” Zeltser says he assumed this meant Palladino was watching, and he played the tape of message for other reporters, to prove that O’Brien was after him.

Zeltser began telling stories to other reporters about how O’Brien “went crazy” whenever he heard even the names of his rivals at the Journal. Zeltser had managed to pick up some Journal office gossip about the reasons for O’Brien’s departure, and he began passing it on to other reporters, along with theories about O’Brien’s “underdeveloped ego” and the impact of his “horrible” divorce.

“This would have been a small story for the business section, but Zeltser’s reaction kept upping the ante,” O’Brien says. “He clearly gets how he can create this thing, make it look like I am out on a vendetta.”

Zeltser, of course, disputes nearly every aspect of O’Brien’s story, from their first phone call until their last goodbye. And although I’ve known O’Brien to be a conscientious reporter, at first I wasn’t sure how to reconcile their accounts.

No reporter is perfect. O’Brien can become emotional in the pursuit of a story, and he had clearly become obsessed with Zeltser. In an effort to sort through their conflicting accounts, I tried to reach nearly everyone involved with the story, (including Grigoriev and Bugrov, without success). Zeltser referred me to friends and associates who could back his story, but only Viktor Smolny and Peter Shacker were willing to speak on the record. Once, I passed Oxana Berkounova in Zeltser’s office. I also independently met some of O’Brien’s sources, and others who found me after his story appeared. They backed his account of events throughout, confirming for me what he heard at each step of the way. They also told stories about Zeltser’s fabricating of documents, buttressing those in the lawsuits with Inkombank.

On December 23, O’Brien sent Zeltser a long fax full of detailed questions about his past and present alleged misdeeds. Then O’Brien took his kids to Virginia for Christmas. When he returned, he found that Zeltser had ridiculed the fax on his Web page. When O’Brien asked about Oxana Berkounova, Zeltser wrote, “Go for it, Tiger!” adding, “Try flowers – they really go for that stuff.”

And Zeltser had added something new to his Web page, a note that ended, “I hope you had a nice vacation in Virginia.” Later, he posted directions to O’Brien’s home in New Jersey – albeit a home he had recently vacated. Was this a threat to him and his family? Again, O’Brien told the Times editors about his fears. They decided the best response was to publish the story.

So, with his editor Stephen Engelberg’s help, O’Brien prepared a draft. They worried the story would seem personal – O’Brien was writing a story in which he’d become a player – so they stuck to what they thought were the most salient issues: that Zeltser may have faked the insider-trading memo; that the Journal and other papers had gullibly relied on his information; and that the validity of Zeltser’s license to practice law was in dispute. O’Brien also quoted Andrei Bugrov, Grigoriev’s former boss at the World Bank, saying the insider-trading memo was probably fake. And he recounted some of Zeltser’s efforts to harass him off the story.

Together, they called other news organizations for comment. Engelberg called the Journal’s spokesman, Richard Tofel, sparing O’Brien from interviewing his former employer. Tofel stood behind his paper’s report: “We were convinced and remain convinced that the story was fair and accurate.”

Zeltser had his say, too. “Is Timothy O’Brien of the New York Times an aggressive reporter – or simply aggressive?” began the lead item in Post’s “Page Six” on the day O’Brien’s own story appeared. “Emanuel Zeltser, a lawyer and board member of the American Russian Law Institute, charges O’Brien went ‘out of control’ last August when he learned that Zeltser, one of his best sources, was talking to the Wall Street Journal and other papers.”

Tofel later clarified to me the paper’s position: Although the memo’s authenticity was open to question, the World Bank deemed it credible enough to launch an investigation, which remains open. That essentially amounts to sidestepping the paper’s making its own assessment of the memo. But Tofel had stern words for O’Brien. “We were both surprised and disappointed that Tim O’Brien would be writing about us and himself,” Tofel said. “It is rarely a good idea in a news story for the subject and the reporter to be the same person.”

O’Brien, though, is unrepentant. “I didn’t get any joy out of embarrassing the Journal,” he says. “What I care about is journalists so beholden to a dirty source that they are willing to carry water for them. If our job necessitates from time to time exposing people who are polluting the reporting process, then so be it. Given everything that has happened. I would do it again.”

Actually, this time it may be my turn. Last week, Zeltser sent a letter to the corporate offices of Primedia Inc., which owns New York. “I respectfully bring to your attention a situation which in my view may result in grossly inaccurate and hostile reporting by New York Magazine’s David Kirkpatrick,” the letter began. “The material which David relies on consists of fallacious allegations of Russian launderers… . Mr. Kirkpatrick’s reporting may become a de facto parroting of absurd and long-rebutted allegations of the Russian mob ‘spin doctors.’…”

Poisoned at the Source