The governor's office is demanding Indiana's largest newspaper formally retract and delete from its website two articles alleging improprieties in the state's investigation of a 2017 worker's death at an Amazon warehouse in Plainfield.
In an extraordinary cease and desist letter, an attorney for Gov. Eric Holcomb claims the articles published this week by the Indianapolis Star, and produced by Reveal, a project of The Center for Investigative Reporting, contain "serious inaccuracies and falsehoods" that "seek to unjustifiably and inexcusably harm the good name and reputation of Governor Holcomb."
The articles claim Holcomb personally helped scuttle an Indiana Department of Labor investigation into the death of Phillip Lee Terry, 59, to boost Indiana's chances of landing Amazon's second corporate headquarters, and because Amazon made a $1,000 donation to Holcomb's 2020 reelection campaign.
The primary source for the stories was John Stallone, a former safety inspector for Indiana's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, who reportedly was pressured to resign by Indiana Labor Commissioner Rick Ruble in order to placate Amazon.
Joseph Heerens, Holcomb's general counsel, says in the cease and desist letter that Stallone actually was "fired for poor work performance that began long before the tragic death of Mr. Terry," which Heerens says Reveal would have discovered if it had investigated Stallone's work history with the state.
"It's not unusual for people who have been fired to harbor ill will toward their former employers, and some even look for ways to get even," Heerens said. "The fact that he was fired calls into question Mr. Stallone's credibility, motivations and bias — something you apparently didn't explore."
Heerens also notes Stallone was unable to provide the exact date of when he supposedly was pressured by the Republican governor, no other Department of Labor employees recall seeing Holcomb in their office, and there is no record of Holcomb intervening in any IOSHA investigation.
"You were told multiple times before you published the article, by both our office and the Indiana Department of Labor, that this allegation was false, yet you published it anyway," Heerens said. "These clear and unequivocal denials should have been red flags for you, causing you to prudently pause to reevaluate whether Mr. Stallone was being truthful."
In addition, Heerens said the articles unfairly insinuate Amazon received special treatment by being permitted to contest potential safety violation fines, when Indiana law explicitly authorizes a cooperative review process to resolve workplace safety issues.
"Clearly, this was something that your source, Mr. Stallone, knew as an IOSHA inspector, and that can be easily ascertained by looking at Indiana law. But your reporting failed to discuss the requirements of Indiana law and how they apply to this case," Heerens said.
The letter warns Reveal and the Indianapolis Star they could be subject to legal action for defamation of a public official if they knowingly and maliciously published falsehoods — which Heerens implies is exactly what happened.
"The allegations in your story about Governor Holcomb are completely and utterly false. Your source, Mr. Stallone, is not credible. Your story has serious inaccuracies and falsehoods," Heerens writes.
Holcomb acknowledged in a statement that it's unusual for an Indiana governor to seek the complete retraction of news articles, but he insisted it was necessary in this case to avoid the perpetuation of a false narrative about himself and his administration.
"There are many good, tough and thorough reporters in the Fourth Estate who seek to educate by way of the truth," Holcomb said. "Unfortunately, when Reveal and the Indy Star worked in conjunction to publish a false story, it tarnishes journalistic integrity across the board and the public loses faith in where they get their news."
Reveal did not respond to a request for comment on the letter sent by the governor's office.
Ronnie Ramos, executive editor of the Indianapolis Star, says in his newspaper's story about the cease and desist letter: "We take all concerns about accuracy very seriously."
"We understand Reveal is planning a substantive response to the governor's letter," Ramos said.