ZivaGate: Ziva Branstetter’s Attorney Tells Her Side

Ziva Branstetter’s attorney has broken their side’s silence in the ZivaGate controversy.

The lowdown:  They admit the Tulsa World investigative reporter and editor provided an angry, unstable, heavily drinking man she didn’t know with personal information about the family and whereabouts of the target of his rage… but they don’t think it warrants an apology.

Last night I received a 4-page letter from the attorney for Tulsa World and Ziva Branstetter, Mr. J Schaad Titus of Tulsa-based Titus, Hillis, Reynolds, Love, Dickman & McCalmon.

Roughly 1 of the 4 pages provided Ziva Branstetter’s account of how and why she provided the unstable and angry David Rutkauskas with loads of personal information on me and my family.

I have pasted this section of the letter below, and followed it with why this account doesn’t jibe with the facts.

The rest of other 3 pages are filled with Titus’ complaints that my attorney didn’t return his phone calls, that I’m putting Ziva Branstetter in “a false light” by asking why she put me and my family at risk, that I risk legal action if I don’t shut my yap, etc. etc.

You can read the letter in it’s entirety here:  Letter from Tulsa World Attorney Schaad Titus.

In the letter dated June 19, 2013, Mr. Titus writes:

…On May 8, 2013, David Rutkauskas called Ziva Branstetter (who is an enterprise editor) trying to get Branstetter to do a story on Kelly. As enterprise editor for the Tulsa World, Ziva is in charge of investigative reporting and is not a management official in the sense of knowing the ins and outs of what is going on with legal matters such as the subpoena. In fact, at that time, Branstetter had no knowledge of Sean Kelly’s comments on the Tulsa World stories; had no knowledge of the John Doe subpoena; and had no knowledge that there was an ongoing dispute between Beautiful Brands over what Sean Kelly said in his Unhappy Franchisee blog or in his comments to Tulsa World’s story about Beautiful Brands.

As noted above, in a May 8th telephone call to Ziva, Rutkauskas was trying to promote a story to Branstetter about the Unhappy Franchisee. He stated or implied that the Unhappy Franchisee was a blogger who was improperly targeting Tulsa businesses and left the impression that he was a local blogger. As Branstetter does with almost all story tips, she ran a quick public records search under Lexis Nexis (or what she calls auto track), and searched Pacer. She found considerable public information on the Unhappy Franchisee blogger, including that the blogger was Sean Kelly.

She pasted the information into a report to determine whether she thought a story existed. After compiling this information in about a 20 to 30 minute period, she determined that there was no story of local interest, and emailed this information to Rutkauskas to show him that based upon her review, there was no local story there. She provided this information to him to have him explain how this information related to a Tulsa based story rather than an out-of-state blogger objecting to how franchisees are treated.

At no time did Rutkauskas tell her that he had sued John Doe. He did not tell her he was going to sue Sean Kelly; he did not tell her that a subpoena was issued; and he did not hint or imply that there was a dispute between Beautiful Brands and the Unhappy Franchisee over the comments. In providing this information, Ziva did not publish the information other than to Rutkauskas. She provided the report to cultivate what she thought might be a source for future stories and to give him a chance to explain why this would be a story of interest to Tulsans.

In any event, the information Branstetter obtained was publicly available and quickly and readily available to anyone who cared to look. It did not involve anything that was in any way personal or private information, nor was there a “closed” bankruptcy hearing as suggested by Kelly. It took Branstetter approximately 20 to 30 minutes to compile. After she provided this in an effort to cause Rutkauskas to explain to her why this would ever involve a story, Rutkauskas responded in a telephone call but could not explain any local interest.

…Ziva had no relationship with David Rutkauskas before May 8 (other than him sending a Facebook private message of some sort regarding the Tulsa World’s sale). Ziva was hopeful that he would become a source and provide information for good stories, but he was unable to develop this into a story on Kelly or anyone else.

Ugh.  I was hoping that Ms. Branstetter would just come clean, admit she made a mistake and apologize.

Instead, she sends this explanation (via her attorney) that conflicts with known facts and doesn’t even make sense.  For instance:

Ziva’s search log contradicts her story.

First, she claims that she had been unaware of my dispute with Mr. Rutkauskas and the subpoena his company had issued to Tulsa World, that she was initially unaware of my name, and that she discovered my identity via her Lexis-Nexis/Pacer search. However, my identity as mystery blogger “Unhappy Franchisee” would not have appeared in a Lexis-Nexis/Pacer search, as the identity of anonymous bloggers are not indexed in those databases. In fact, the search record documents she sent to Rutkauskas indicate that she initiated her searches with the term “Sean P Kelly.”

Ziva’s search log contradicts her timeline of events.

Second, Ms. Branstetter claims she was first contacted by Mr. Rutkauskas on May 8, 2013, and performed the searches that same day. However, the search records clearly indicate that her search was run on May 7, the day before Ms. Branstetter alleges she received first contact from Mr. Rutkauskas. The Microsoft Word document Ms. Branstetter sent to Mr. Rutkauskas likewise has a creation date of May 7, 2013.

Ziva’s email message is not consistent with the “mystery blogger” scenario.

Third, Ms. Branstetter’s email message does not mention any of the elements of her “mystery Tulsa blogger” scenario. Ms. Branstetter never states that “based upon her review, there [is] no story of public interest here.” She writes nothing to Mr. Rutkauskas to indicate that she was sending this information to “cause Rutkauskas to explain to her why this would ever involve a story” of interest to Tulsans. In fact, Ms. Branstetter states in her email “Here are the reports I pulled on him. It may be hard stuff for you to interpret but if you look at it long enough you can pick out the pieces of info you are interested in.”

Mr. Titus’ letter misses the main point.

If one accepts this account at face value, Mr. Titus’ letter still misses the main point:  That a powerful investigative reporter and editor provided an angry, unstable man (a man she didn’t know – and who was drinking heavily after years of sobriety) with personal information about the family, finances and whereabouts of the target of his rage.

Is this acceptable behavior for a professional in her position of power?

If not, doesn’t this warrant at least an apology… if not from Branstetter, from the publication that employs her?

In my opinion, if this incident ends up casting Ms. Ziva Branstetter in an unfavorable light, it will not be because of her initial lapse of judgement.

It will be because she is a self-declared proponent of truth and transparency who, when challenged, refused to be open and transparent.

It will be because she is a professional who holds others accountable for a living, but who refused to take accountability when she contributed, even if unintentionally, to an attack on a subscriber to her publication and a fellow investigative writer.

Also read:

ZivaGate: Tulsa World Editor Fueled Twitter Attacks on Blogger [UPDATED]

TULSA WORLD: The Honey Badger of American Journalism

ZivaGate: Letter to Ziva Branstetter

David Rutkauskas Apologizes, Will Drop Lawsuit




Tags: Ziva Branstetter, Ziva Branstetter Tulsa World, Tulsa World, IRE, Investigators and Reporters Inc., Beautiful Brands International, BBI, David Rutkauskas, Unhappy Franchisee, UnhappyFranchisee.Com, Sean Kelly, Schaad Titus, Jonathan Fortman

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