ZivaGate: An Open Letter to IRE (Investigative Reporters & Editors)

Who investigates the investigators?

That’s a question I hope Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. will tackle at the IRE conference in San Antonio, TX this week.

According to the IRE website, “The mission of Investigative Reporters and Editors is to foster excellence in investigative journalism, which is essential to a free society.”

One of the key missions of IRE is “Promoting high professional standards.”

The name, IRE, stems from the belief that good investigative reporting  is borne from "a sense of outrage."

I hope that you will investigate whether the conduct of one of your own, IRE Board Candidate Ziva Branstetter of Tulsa World, is worthy of outrage… or at least concern.

Retaliation Against a Whistleblower

I am a writer with 25 years of experience in the franchise industry, and publisher of the franchise discussion site UnhappyFranchisee.Com.

Last summer, I contacted Tulsa World to urge them to investigate an international, multi-brand franchise company named Beautiful Brands International (BBI), which is based in their hometown of Tulsa, OK.

I had received numerous complaints of deceptive sales practices by BBI, as well as a lack of franchisee support and a general indifference to the plight of their franchisees. 

Some of these franchisees had suffered losses up to $1 million, lost their retirement funds, savings and their marriages. 

I verified the claims of high failure rates with SBA loan default records, BBI’s franchise disclosure documents and the company’s public location listings.

Despite the fact that there was clear evidence that this was a very troubled company with a questionable business model, Tulsa World and other local and trade publications had continued to promote the BBI as a robust, growing enterprise.  In literally hundreds of positive news items over several years, Tulsa World exaggerated the accomplishments of BBI and its founder, David Rutkauskas, and did not print anything that diminished the fictional success story they had built for BBI nor their iconic portrayal of Rutkauskas as Tulsa’s entrepreneurial Golden Boy.

I urged Tulsa World to consider that their fictional success story was being used to sell $250,000+ investments to franchisees who were putting their savings, credit, retirement funds and homes on the line.

Tulsa World’s reaction to my tips and information was resistance and defensiveness.  They only ran a corrective story (without crediting me as a source) after I sharply criticized them in several blog posts.

Tulsa World then refused to fight a subpoena protecting my anonymity as a commenter on their site, and BBI hit me with a frivolous lawsuit in retribution.

BBI CEO David Rutkauskas then launched a six-week personal Twitter attack on me which included an ongoing barrage of profanity, physical threats and vulgar insults on a regular basis. 

He posted personal information about my finances (including my 2007 bankruptcy), my family, my home address and photos of my house  (See some of his tweets posted here:  ZivaGate: Tulsa World Editor Fueled Twitter Attacks on Blogger

The personal information that Rutkauskas posted about me was, apparently, provided to him by Tulsa World Enterprise Editor Ziva Branstetter, who used her paper’s resources to run several reports on me which she emailed to Rutkauskas with this message:

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. The first two should pull up web-based links to the reports I ran on him individually and his business. The third is a word document that I pasted some info into that I found on various sites and the pdf is the list of creditors from his 2006 Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy. (It has since been closed.) I didn’t see any evidence of criminal activity and there was one lawsuit listed by Cannon copiers.

Basically he doesn’t have a lot of assets and doesn’t appear to have any connection with franchising so it makes no sense that he started this crusade. He’s a self-employed father of four who lives in Pennsylvania. The business is supposedly marketing or consulting of some type but like I said, I see very little evidence that it’s an active business.

Ziva Branstetter

Enterprise Editor

Tulsa World

The email was leaked by an anonymous, inside source and its authenticity has not been disputed by either Branstetter or Rutkauskas.

Rutkauskas would later apologize for his attacks, stating that he was in extreme emotional distress during that period, that he was drinking heavily after many years of sobriety, and that he was filled with rage.

Ziva Branstetter has neither apologized nor explained her actions, despite my repeated requests (ZivaGate: Letter to Ziva Branstetter).

Did she, in fact, send this information to Rutkauskas?  What was her intent?  Was this search sanctioned by Tulsa World, or was her motivation purely personal?

These questions remain unanswered.  Ziva Branstetter has also refused to comment for either of the stories written about “ZivaGate”  thus far (Urban Tulsa Weekly’s  Stranger than Fiction:  Silence over Tulsa World editor doing digging for CEO, This Land Press’s  New Tulsa World Publisher Faces Troubles in First Week).

An Assault on Openness & Transparency

If these allegations are true, Ms. Branstetter’s actions – in helping a corporate bully try to inhibit free speech through intimidation and dirty tricks – seem to be the antithesis of what the IRE represents.

If true, she undermined a fellow writer who was doing what she should have been doing:  exposing deceptive business practices in her hometown.

If true, she used her position and her paper’s resources to fuel a personal vendetta.

If true, she provided an angry, unstable man with personal information about the family and whereabouts of the target of his rage.

These issues raise deep concerns and important issues facing both you and I, as investigators and seekers of the truth.

As tough as we have to be to face the bad guys and not back down to their intimidation, we also need to remain humble and aware that our actions can have hugely negative consequences if we do not act responsibly.

We need to constantly remind ourselves that we are not just out to “get” people, but that we serve the greater good and cannot abuse our skills, resources and influence for petty, mean-spirited and malicious purposes.

I believe Ms. Ziva Branstetter has lost touch with the principles on which IRE was founded. 

I hope you will take the opportunity to address her actions with her in a meaningful way this week, so that she can return to Tulsa with a renewed (or newfound) commitment to responsible journalism.

Thanks for your attention and consideration,

Sean Kelly





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

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