Harkin staff collaborated with interest group, outside law firm to edit witness testimony

Top aides to Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin collaborated with a special interest group and a law firm with a financial stake in the matter to edit the written and oral testimony of a witness at a key investigative hearing last year, documents obtained by The Daily Caller show.

Officials from The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) and the James, Hoyer, Newcomer & Smiljanich law firm edited Josh Pruyn’s testimony for a pivotal Aug. 4, 2010 hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), as did Harkin aides. (RELATED: Document suggests witness tampering by Sen. Tom Harkin’s office)

Pruyn, a disillusioned former employee of the for-profit Westwood College online, testified about high-pressure sales tactics used to enroll new students at the school. But ethics experts say the involvement of outside groups undermines the credibility of his testimony.

“That’s not an investigation, that’s just a charade,” said Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and formerly the top ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, “Witnesses’ testimony should be their own, not that of outside groups that ‘edit’ the testimony to say what they want it to say.”

The criticism is another blow to Harkin’s embattled investigation of the for-profit schools, following questions about an error-ridden Government Accountability Office (GAO) report commissioned by Harkin on the same subject and unveiled at the same hearing in which Pruyn testified.

As reported by TheDC last week, Harkin investigative counsel Ryan McCord supplied a suggested answer to Pruyn to help him distance himself from the Hoyer law firm. Pruyn followed McCord’s suggested answer almost verbatim in the hearing itself.

But emails and tracked document revisions show intimate involvement by the law firm in shaping Pruyn’s testimony, although the answer Pruyn gave in the hearing was technically true.

A Testimony Evolves

Before Pruyn even drafted his testimony, Angie Moreschi, a lawyer at the Hoyer firm, helped him brainstorm what he would include.

Pruyn and Moreschi were close. For instance, when Moreschi was injured in a December 2010 car accident, Pruyn sent her flowers, emails show.

The two met when Pruyn came to the Hoyer law firm to describe, over six to eight hours, his experience as an employee at Westwood College online. The Hoyer firm is pursuing four class action lawsuits against Westwood; it has “tried to make a business of suing” for-profit colleges, the sector’s top lobbyist has charged.

“Angie knows my story well enough I liked having her around” to help craft the testimony, Pruyn said Monday, adding that he is not a party to the lawsuits and the firm never paid him besides reimbursing minor travel expenses and taking him out for several meals.

July 23, twelve days before the hearing in which Pruyn would testify, Moreschi sent Pruyn an outline of his experiences working at Westwood based his interviews with her law firm.

“Here’s the outline I put together from our talk to get your thoughts together for your testimony,” she wrote.

“Thanks for helping with this, Angie,” Pruyn replied several days later. “I did much of the work last night (and used this as a guide to make sure I’m including everything).”