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VCU President's Pro-Coliseum Op-Ed Ghostwritten By Developer

The Times-Dispatch headquarters in downtown Richmond
The Times-Dispatch headquarters in downtown Richmond (Eli Christman/Creative Commons)  

VPM reporters Ben Paviour and Roberto Roldan reported this story.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch published two columns endorsing a controversial downtown redevelopment project that was signed by local university presidents but written by the developer, Navy Hill District Corporation.

VCU President Michael Rao signed his name to a January 6, 2019 Times-Dispatch opinion piece endorsing the Richmond Coliseum redevelopment deal that was drafted by Jeff Kelley, a NH District Corp spokesperson, emails show.

Representatives for the developer also drafted a December 9, 2018 Times-Dispatch op-ed that appeared under the shared byline of the presidents of Virginia Union and Virginia State Universities, according to Kelley.

Paige Mudd, executive editor of the Times-Dispatch, said the newspaper was not aware of the developers’ role in the Rao piece, and would not have run the story if it had understood NH District Corp’s role in its formulation. She said the paper vets everything it runs.

“In this instance, when we received an op-ed signed by Michael Rao and delivered to us by his staff, we would expect that he had written it himself,” Mudd wrote in an email.

Rendering of the proposed Navy Hill redevelopment project (NH District Corp)
Rendering of the proposed Navy Hill redevelopment project (NH District Corp)​​​

Mudd did not respond to follow-up questions regarding the December 10 piece, but said the paper would run its own news story. Mudd has not said whether the paper will alter the columns to reflect their authorship. Hours after VPM published its story, the Times-Dispatch put out a news story about the opinion pieces.

The newspaper overhauled its editorial department in February, bringing in former Times-Dispatch reporter Pamela Stallsmith to replace Editor of the Editorial Pages Bob Rayner.

Emails show the January 6, 2019 Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed titled “Navy Hill Would Be Transformative for All” was drafted by Kelley. The piece endorsed an ambitious and controversial plan to redevelop the Richmond Coliseum and 10 blocks of downtown.

“Dr. Rao wanted to do the op-ed and our team welcomed that gesture of support,“ Kelley said in an email to VPM. “I interviewed Dr. Rao for a video testimonial shortly after the Mayor’s Nov. 1 announcement. Using his own words, beliefs and opinions regarding the project, I helped draft the first cut of the op-ed.”

Kelley said a prior, December 9 op-ed, “Hakim J. Lucas and Makola M. Abdullah: We Commit to Progress, with Openness and Transparency,” was also drafted by NH District Corp staff and circulated to local leaders to build support for the project, including Lucas, the president of Virginia Union University, and Abdullah, the president of Virginia State University.

The footer of the print version of the piece notes it included contributions from four other prominent African Americans. The Times-Dispatch later added five names to the online edition, including Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell, who is spearheading the Navy Hill project.

A December 6 email from Kelley mentions a Farrell op-ed slated to run December 10, but the Lucas and Abdullah piece was the only one that appeared in that day’s print edition.

Kelley said in interviews this week that the pieces are “one and the same,” and that the developers ultimately decided to submit the op-ed in Lucas and Abdullah’s name rather than Farrell’s.

“We proactively reached out to college presidents, community members, business community members, [and] showed them the draft we had,” Kelley said. “They gave their input and they agreed to go on as signers.”

Lucas and Abdullah’s offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Kelley and Rao’s staff say the column was based on a brief interview Kelley conducted with Rao when Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney first announced a tentative agreement with NH District Corp on November 1, 2018.

NH District Corp also drafted an op-ed that ran last month in the Times-Dispatch under the names of C.T. Hill and Pamela Royal, local business leaders who sit on the NH Foundation Board of Directors.

Jeff Thomas, an author of several books on Virginia’s recent political history and critic of the redevelopment deal, first obtained the emails between Kelley and Michael Rao’s office in January 2019 via a Freedom of Information Act request. He passed the emails to the progressive group Activate Virginia, which later published them online and sent them to several area reporters.

VCU Lepley - VCU Woodward E... by Activate Virginia on Scribd

In the emails, Pam Lepley, VCU’s vice president for university relations, suggests Kelley “outline major points so we can put it in Mike [Rao]’s voice.” Kelley responded with a fully formed draft.

“Once you are good on your end, I’ll pass it through the legal team here to make sure it’s good to go,” Kelley wrote.

Lepley went on to do “very few edits -- mostly stylistic” that she said were made to reflect Rao’s voice.

What ended up appearing several weeks later in the Richmond Times-Dispatch was an article substantially similar to the original draft by the NH District Corp spokesperson. The op-ed published by RTD did not contain a single unique graph from Rao and his staff.

In a statement to VPM News, Lepley said VCU stood by the piece.

“It is normal for public relations professionals to collaborate on projects of mutual interest, including op-eds,” she wrote. “The final op-ed submitted to the publication was vetted and edited by my communications team and me and reviewed by the president to ensure it reflected his words and position.”

Michael Rao addresses the Eyes on Richmond speakers series at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in 2010
Michael Rao addresses the Eyes on Richmond speakers series at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in 2010 (Craig Carper/VPM News)

Lepley didn’t disclose Kelley’s role in drafting the piece to the Times-Dispatch, arguing that “it is a given that a final submission will have been touched by many people.”

Last month, Stephen S. Fuller, a professor at George Mason University, came under fire for writing an op-ed supporting Amazon’s move to Northern Virginia at the behest of a communications manager at the company, according to the Washington Post. Fuller drafted the op-ed himself but sent it to Amazon public relations staff for review.

Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said readers deserve to have as much information as possible when assessing the credibility of a piece of writing.

“When a news organization publishes something, and then it turns out it was written by someone other than the byline, that can make people distrust that organization,” Culver said. “[Readers] could say 'Well see: the fix is in. The developer is the one who has written this and now I can't trust anything that anybody says about this development.’"

Ghostwritten op-eds have become a staple of some public relations firms. One Washington D.C. firm, Keybridge Communications, boasts of “a daily track record” of placing op-eds, editorials, and letters to the editor in leading news outlets; the company said it placed 90 op-eds defending a Fortune 500 company that was facing the “fight of its life.”

The NH District Corp. has proposed replacing the Richmond Coliseum with a new arena and redeveloping the surrounding blocks. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)
The NH District Corp. has proposed replacing the Richmond Coliseum with a new arena and redeveloping the surrounding blocks. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Michael Meath, interim chair of the public relations department at Syracuse University, said the practice was ethical, as long as the leaders agreed with the positions that were identified with their name.

“So long as the author stands behind his/her words, with their signature, it is not a deceptive business practice,” Meath said via email.

A reporter for the Times-Dispatch also obtained emails between Kelley and Lepley via a FOIA request in January. 

“Because of other news coverage demands, the news staff did not fully review and research them until this week,” Wednesday's Times-Dispatch article said.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said that Jeff Kelley authored an op-ed signed by C.T. Hill and Pamela Royal. The op-ed was written by Kelley as well as other NH District Corp staff. This story has also been updated to reflect Wednesday's Times-Dispatch story.