Holcomb issues cease-and-desist letters in response to Amazon OSHA case articles

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Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb on Friday said cease-and-desist letters have been sent to two news organizations — including The Indianapolis Star — in response to published reports that include accusations that his administration dismissed safety citations against Amazon as the state tried to win the company’s coveted HQ2 project.

A Nov. 25 article about injuries at Amazon warehouses published by Reveal from the not-for-profit Center for Investigative Reporting alleges the governor was involved in getting Amazon’s fines eliminated after the September 2017 death of a maintenance employee in Plainfield.

Holcomb has strongly denied the allegations and continued to push back by issuing the cease-and-desist letters to Reveal and The Star, which published a portion of the Reveal article.

Reveal’s report said a now-former inspector for the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration initially issued four safety citations for a total fine of $28,000, but those charges were later dropped. The inspector, John Stallone, provided recordings of a phone call between Amazon officials and his boss, Indiana OSHA Director Julie Alexander, that suggests the agency helped Amazon get the fines removed, according to the article.

Alexander can be heard telling Stallone, “I hope you don’t take it personally if we have to manipulate your citations” after the phone call, Reveal reported.

That phone call occurred while Holcomb’s administration was unsuccessfully bidding for Amazon’s HQ2 project, which promised to bring a $5 billion investment and 50,000 jobs to the winning region.

Stallone told Reveal that several days after that call, he was sent into a meeting with Indiana Labor Commissioner Rick Ruble and Holcomb, who allegedly brought up the Amazon deal and said it would mean a lot to the state to land the headquarters.

According to the governor’s office, the cease-and-desist letters sent by general counsel Joseph Heerens say at least three false allegations were made in the story:

  1. Stone said he met with governor, but that meeting never occurred, according to the letter. “It’s a complete and outrageous fabrication,” the letter says.
  2. Stallone said he resigned soon after the incident, but the governor’s office said he was fired for poor work performance.
  3. Stallone said he tried to issue four additional safety citations, but the letter says documentation shows he listed only four.

“The allegations in your story about Governor Holcomb are completely and utterly false,” the letter says. “Your source, Mr. Stallone, is not credible. Your story has serious inaccuracies and falsehoods.”

The letter says Holcomb’s administration repeatedly told Reveal that the meeting between Stallone, Ruble and Holcomb never occurred.

“These clear and unequivocal denials should have been red flags for you, causing you to prudently pause to re-evaluate whether Mr. Stallone was being truthful,” the letter says.

Holcomb’s letter also criticizes Reveal for not specifying when that alleged meeting occurred. The article says it was “some days after the conference call with Amazon officials.” According to the cease-and-desist letter, Reveal has only told the Holcomb administration that it took place sometime between Nov. 20 and Dec. 6.

The letter speculates that Stallone could be trying to get back at his former employers after he was fired.

“The truth is that he was fired for poor work performance that began long before the tragic death of Mr. Terry,” the letter says. “Why is that important? Because 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.”

The letter says Reveal should have properly explained the process the Indiana OSHA uses during investigations, which includes informal conversations between the agency and the company being investigated.

“Thus, contrary to the insinuation in your article that the call between Indiana’s OSHA Director and Amazon officials was suspect and out of the ordinary, the truth is that a review, which routinely includes conferring and negotiating with the business in question, was required under Indiana law,” the letter says.

Holcomb is asking Reveal to retract and correct the errors, stop publishing the article as currently written and issue an apology to the governor.

The letter sent to The Indianapolis Star is similar and includes a copy of what was sent to Reveal. It questions why The Star would publish the Reveal article and whether it was vetted at all.

“In light of the foregoing, the public has a right to know how your organization makes decisions about publishing articles by third parties like Reveal and its reporter Will Evans,” the letter to The Star says. “Do you simply accept whatever someone sends you, or is there some review and screening process? If there is some type of process, how does it work and where is the line between what you will publish and what you won’t?”

“We remain confident in our reporting,” Matt Thompson, Reveal’s editor in chief, said in an email to the Indianapolis Business Journal. “We are reviewing the claims in the governor’s letter and will respond in due course.”

Star Executive Editor Ronnie Ramos told IBJ that “we are reviewing the letter. No decision has been made.”

In a statement issued after sending the cease-and-desist letters, Holcomb said it’s an “unusual step to take,” but he was “compelled to do so.”

“I will not let the false accusations about Indiana state employees and me stand, as first published by California-based Reveal and followed soon thereafter by the Indianapolis Star,” Holcomb said in the statement. “Unfortunately, other news organizations in our state have either published the same story in its entirety or other versions unchecked for truth and accuracy, further perpetuating a false narrative.”

Amazon also denied the allegations made in the Reveal story.

“Any allegation that Amazon pressured state regulators to take actions that were not in the best interest of our workers is absurd,” the company said in a statement. “We stand by the findings of the investigation and that appropriate safety training was provided to Mr. Terry.”

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