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

Jonathan Strong | Contributor

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).”

July 26, 2010, Pruyn sent the initial draft of his testimony to Harkin staffer Ryan McCord.

McCord edited the testimony that same day, mostly for tone and style. “You might want to change the word ‘evil,’” tracked document changes show McCord wrote. “It implies the people you worked with were doing evil. Maybe they were?” (Pruyn ultimately ignored the suggestion.)

On July 29, Moreschi heavily edited Pruyn’s draft. “Include a sentence about ‘pain points’ here,” she urged, according to more tracked document changes. (Pruyn did add such a sentence to the final testimony.)

Pruyn sent a revised version to McCord, who then looped in Jennifer Webber from TICAS, a left-wing nonprofit organization.

Despite TICAS’s relatively small $2.3 million budget in 2009, the group was tremendously influential in pushing strict new regulations on the for-profit colleges, finalized June 2, with its former president, Robert Shireman, joining the Obama administration in 2009 as a top deputy to Education Sec. Arne Duncan.

“Jennifer,” McCord wrote, “Here’s the latest draft. I just sent it to Josh for review of my comments.

“The next step is to narrow down the written testimony to get a solid oral. And we want to start running through possible questions – pro and con – from the members. Are those things that you feel comfortable helping with?” Beth Stein, Harkin’s chief investigative counsel on the HELP committee, was cc’d on the email.

Webber was indeed “comfortable” with helping. Her main suggestion was to eliminate an analogy that may have inadvertently made Westwood look good.

“I do have one suggestion … and that is to remove the phrase where it says that he functioned like a salesperson with leads, like an encyclopedia salesperson. I don’t think an analogy is needed, plus, aren’t encyclopedias a good thing? They were (are?) are [sic] great resource in the days before the internet!” she wrote in a July 30 email.

“You’re right – not the best example. We should think about rewording that part, Josh,” McCord wrote back.

Webber also took charge of shortening Pruyn’s written testimony for his five-minute oral presentation at the hearing. “Here is the testimony edited for length of oral testimony. Josh, as you edit it to make it feel more like yourself talking, if we can cut out any more words, that would be good,” she would later write.

Aug. 1, 2010 — three days before the hearing — Moreschi had some more suggestions. Again, she focused on emphasizing “pain points,” the “emotional triggers” sales representatives hone in on to make the sale. (Could it be emphasizing these “pain points” was important for her firm’s lawsuits? Moreschi did not return a call for comment).

“Josh, Another thought. I know you’ve told me many times about how reps misled students about cost and also played on a student’s emotional triggers. I think these might be important points to add where you discuss the examples of deception in more detail….Perhaps add these two paragraphs or something like this,” Moreschi wrote.

“I think that we can incorporate your suggestions, Angie, into the existing structure,” Harkin staffer McCord wrote, finding places to include the substance of the two recommended paragraphs into the testimony. (Both made it into the final version.)

They were almost done. Both McCord and Moreschi — seeming to have found a factual weakness, saying, “I just want to make sure he’s giving the most accurate information” — made a few final edits.

Pruyn’s testimony was ready. Lory Yudin, the committee clerk, sent out the final version to senators on the HELP committee on Aug. 2.

Hiding Moreschi’s Role?

The next day, McCord helped craft Pruyn’s answer regarding his connection to the Hoyer law firm.

“In order to get out ahead of this issue we might have the chairman straight up ask you if you’re suing Westwood,” McCord wrote in an Aug. 3, 2010 email.

“It’s fine to say something along the lines of ‘I am not suing Westwood. I felt strongly that the culture at the school was unethical. I have a journalist friend who was interested in writing a story about for-profit schools. Through him I talked to a few reporters and lawyers at a law firm that was representing Westwood students. So my name has been in the news a few times, but I have never sued or wanted to sue the school,’” McCord wrote.

The next day at the hearing, when Harkin asked as expected whether Pruyn was suing Westwood, Pruyn answered almost exactly as McCord had suggested he should.

Harkin spokeswoman Justine Sessions said the suggested answer “was simply a reiteration of what the witness had told our staff previously.”

But didn’t the answer hide the very significant role Moreschi — and the Hoyer law firm — played in shaping Pruyn’s testimony?

“I don’t think so,” Pruyn said Monday. “My impression is [McCord] was trying to establish that one, I was not getting paid, and two, that I was not party to the lawsuit, and that’s what the question was for.”

Outsourcing Committee Work to Special Interest Groups

Congressional veterans and ethics experts say the collaboration between Harkin’s staff and the outside groups in editing Pruyn’s testimony is unusual and raises serious questions about the integrity of the hearing.

Don Goldberg, a Democratic veteran of the Clinton administration and Capitol Hill, says Harkin’s staff “crossed a line.”

“Coaching on how to answer a question goes to the heart of the independence of these oversight hearings,” Goldberg told TheDC. “In my ten years on Capitol Hill we never gave a witness an answer to a question.”

Goldberg worked as deputy chief of staff on the House oversight committee under two Democratic chairmen, Reps. John Brooks and John Conyers. “Where I draw the line is if you have a fact witness, anything that appears to be shaping the facts crosses the line,” he said.

“It’s one thing to tell a witness what the questions are. It’s another to tell them what the answer is. That’s highly inappropriate,” said Painter, the law professor and top ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration.

On Harkin’s staff collaborating with outside groups to edit Pruyn’s testimony, Painter said: “These groups can provide their own testimony if they like, but they should not be altering that of other people. And committee staff should not be involved in this helping one person alter another person’s testimony.”

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog group that has investigated the role of Wall Street investors on new regulations on for-profit colleges, said, “It is entirely inappropriate for outside entities to be involved in editing witness testimony. It undermines the credibility of the hearing.”

Because of its ongoing lawsuits, the Hoyer law firm had a distinct financial interest in making Westwood look bad in the hearing. Additionally, a trial lawyer at the firm, Chris Hoyer, is a major donor to Democratic politicians. For instance, Hoyer donated $28,500 to the Democratic National Committee in May 2008.

Harkin spokeswoman Sessions defended the arrangement, calling it routine.

Committee staff “helped” Pruyn — a “brave young man” — to “condense his personal experience into a compelling statement based on what we thought Committee members would respond best to, which is part of typical hearing preparation for our and, we presume, other committees,” Sessions said in a written statement.

TICAS’s Webber said her group “was happy to serve as a resource” to Pruyn.

Pruyn said his motivation in letting Moreschi, McCord and Webber edit his testimony was to ensure it came off as professional and not too angry. He noted that many of the edits toned down his language, rather than sensationalizing his account or making Westwood look worse. But he conceded by making his testimony sound more reasonable — and credible — the edits could have made his testimony a more potent force against the school.

Asked why he has spent considerable resources helping the Hoyer firm on lawsuits to which he is not a party, and for no pay, Pruyn said, “Occasionally I wonder about that myself. But, I really hate that place,” referring to Westwood College. Pruyn left college with considerable debt, searing into his memory how difficult that situation could be. As a result, he said, he felt particular sympathy for students ill-served by Westwood, who left their time there with significant debt.

Westwood is under scrutiny from numerous local, state and federal authorities. In 2009, Westwood’s parent company, Alta Colleges, agreed to pay a $7 million fine to settle Justice Department allegations brought under the False Claims Act.

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