Providence's Alternative Source!

A mixed message on the Harwood-Collins case


When two Providence Journal reporters joined Wendy Collins in seeking copies of state records related to her mysterious settlement and House Speaker John B. Harwood, it appeared as if the paper was in the forefront of efforts to break open the murky controversy. Yet a number of Journal insiders are troubled by the way in which the paper, apparently fearing litigation, ceded the lead in covering the case to other media.

After WHJJ-AM talk-show host John DePetro raised the question of sexual harassment, the ProJo started running with other elements of the story in mid-August, describing how Collins, a former legislative worker, received a $75,000 state settlement and a freshly created $28,000 job at Rhode Island College (RIC) in May, ostensibly for wrongful termination, stress on the job, and a knee injury. The settlement was unusual in part since RIC hadn't created a new full-time job in 25 years, and it came after a House committee cut $12 million from a proposed budget for state colleges.

But Journal lawyers stopped the paper from publishing explicit details from "a huge amount of information, with specific information in it," provided by Collins to Katherine Gregg, the paper's tough State House bureau manager, about Collins's allegation that Harwood had sexually harassed her, says one insider. "The lawyers choked. They really did. There was a time when this would have made the paper."

"I think the editors were genuinely worried that Wendy was not going stand up well if this ever went to court, which is understandable," adds the source, although Gregg is a comprehensive and rigorous enough reporter that, "We could have had the definitive story on this."

At any rate, broadcasters didn't find sufficient legal concerns to hold the story. On August 28, for example, Sean Daly of WPRI-TV (Channel 12) reported about a sworn statement in which former neighbor Brenda Olenkiewicz said, "Wendy Collins did say to me on or about the summer of 1999 that the speaker of the House, John Harwood, did call Ms. Collins up to his office and solicited oral sex, which she felt compelled to perform."

Another Journal insider says, "It would be fair say we knew a lot of the details she was alleging sexual activity . . . It would be fair to say we knew about it before it ever appeared on TV."

Harwood has strenuously denied that he sexually harassed Collins or had any improper relationship with her. The situation remains convoluted in part because, in interviews with WJAR-TV's (Channel 10) Gene Valicenti, Collins denied and later renewed her initial claim of sexual harassment. But although the Journal doesn't have a blanket prohibition on the phrase "oral sex," the paper has yet to mention this specific detail, according to a search of the paper's electronic archives, and it trailed broadcasters in mentioning the allegation of sexual harassment.

Gregg declined comment, as did Joel P. Rawson, the Journal's executive editor. Former attorney general Jeffrey Pine, one of the lawyers representing Collins, didn't return a call seeking comment.

The ProJo's reticence stands in contrast to the paper's traditionally tough coverage of Harwood, an autocratic and controversial figure. The internal disgruntlement over the Journal's handling of the coverage led one newsroom veteran to encourage one of the paper's best young reporters to flee, and it prompted one scribe to post a piece of paper with the word "Journalism" and the legend "R.I.P." on a newsroom bulletin board.

The critics' general sense is that the paper, seen as having a heightened level of timidity on cases with litigation potential since its acquisition by the Belo Corporation in 1997, is being remiss by not offering a more complete version of the story.

Although complex stories need to be carefully vetted, "We're being so extraordinarily cautious, and it looks like we're trying to protect ourselves from a lawsuit by the speaker. It almost looks like we're willing to believe him and to smear her," says one reporter, referring to the way in which Harwood has publicly questioned Collins's credibility, "and to not allow Wendy Collins to have her say, even though it [the details of her allegation] has been on every TV station."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]

Issue Date: September 13 - 19, 2002