The tragicomic tale of Tami and Kevin Sawyer just keeps getting stranger and stranger.
The Sawyers were high flyers during Bend’s real estate bubble era but were shot down in flames last month when a federal grand jury in Eugene indicted them on 21 criminal counts including wire fraud, bank fraud, money laundering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and false statements to a financial institution. They’re also facing civil suits by about 20 former investors in their various business enterprises.
But now, a publication called US-Observer is painting the Sawyers in a new light – as innocent victims of a vast, sinister conspiracy involving The Bulletin, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and, yes, President Barack Obama himself.
“Bend Family’s Real Estate Nightmare,” blares the headline on the story. “Obama Mortgage Investigation ‘Operation Stolen Dreams’ Falsely Targets Entrepreneurs?”
Under the byline of “Joseph Snook & Edward Snook, Investigative Journalists,” the story:
- Accuses The Bulletin of “permanently [ruining] the Sawyers’ reputation with over 32 articles printed to date – all with your typical one-sided smear tactics and completely biased reporting”;
- Claims that an FBI investigator “attempted to manufacture a case” against the Sawyers, and
- Charges that Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Bradford “attempted to coerce the Sawyers into a plea-bargain carrying a five-year prison sentence” by threatening to get their daughter indicted if they didn’t take the deal.
Oh, and the Obama connection? The story says Bradford “is part of President Obama’s ‘Operation Stolen Dreams.’ This operation is purported to be one that goes after fraud in the real estate market. However, the US-Observer has numerous cases where public officials supposedly going after fraud were in fact protecting fraudulent banks and loan officers as they went after innocent people. This appears to be the case with Tami and Kevin Sawyer.”
Before we go any further I need to explain that Edward Snook, who lives in Grants Pass and is the editor of US-Observer, practices checkbook journalism. That means, in his case, that if you’re accused of a crime and you take out your checkbook and write him a check, he’ll write a story “proving” your “innocence.”
Snook doesn’t make any secret of it. When I asked him if he takes money to write his stories, he replied: “People hire us to vindicate them, and our ads are pretty specific that if people are in any way guilty we will find out and they’d be better off not to hire us.”
Snook said his usual retainer is “five grand in-state, 10 grand out-of-state. We bill against that at $95 an hour.”
Kind of steep – but in case you’re worried about wasting your money, Snook’s website offers “a 100% money-back guarantee on criminal cases should we fail to prove your innocence and achieve your total vindication.”
Did the Sawyers pay Snook to write the story about them?
“I’m not gonna divulge who hired me,” Snook said. “Somebody hired me, though.”
Was it somebody connected with the Sawyers?
“That’d be fair to say.”
The Sawyer story is full of statements prefaced with phrases like “it is reported” and “it is alleged,” and relies heavily – indeed, almost exclusively – on anonymous “sources.” The only person who’s quoted by name, in fact, is Tami Sawyer herself. “The fictitious, one-sided reporting by The Bulletin has greatly affected my life and ability to work towards getting my lenders their money back,” she says.
Although Snook describes himself as having more than 20 years of experience as an “investigative journalist,” it appears that his only “journalistic” experience has been with the US-Observer, which he said he started in 1991. When I asked him if he’d ever worked for any other publications or news outlets before that, he answered: “No, I was a cattle rancher.”
While he might not have any fancy journalism degrees or an impressive resumé, Snook knows how to manipulate public opinion. About a year ago, his story about accused rapist Kevin Driscoll of Redmond turned the case into a cause célèbre on the blogosphere. Driscoll’s first trial ended in a hung jury; in the second, which ended last month, he was acquitted.
Working Obama into the headline of the Sawyer story was a shrewd move by Snook; it will get the attention of right-wing bloggers and radio screamers, who no doubt will whip up phony outrage over the “socialist” administration’s persecution of a couple of virtuous, hard-working “entrepreneurs.”
If the Sawyers or their friends wanted to get themselves a hired journalistic gun, I guess they had a right to do it. But Snook’s sleazy “investigative reporting” outrageously smears a bunch of people, including attorneys, legitimate journalists and public officials. And there's no way to make that right.
In the old days they used to say freedom of the press belonged to the man who owned one. Now freedom of the press belongs to any unscrupulous operator who puts up a website and is willing to slime people for money. I’m not sure that’s an improvement.